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Teachers Seek $23b- Lifeline or Bailout?

Posted By James Rosen On May 24, 2010 @ 6:00 AM In Politics, Taxpayer Calculator | Comments Disabled

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is asking lawmakers to put aside “politics and ideology” as they consider a request for $23 billion in “emergency” funding for public schools – a measure Republicans reject as a massive federal bailout for the teachers’ unions.

The Obama administration is supporting the bill, formally titled the Keep Our Educators Working Act and sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA).  In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) dated May 13, Duncan warned that if the bill is not enacted, “millions” of school children will be adversely affected and the ensuing damage will “undermine the groundbreaking reform efforts underway in states and districts all across the country.”

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“This is a bipartisan issue — politics and ideology, around education, we have to put to the side,” Duncan said during an appearance on “Fox and Friends” on May 21.  “I’m very worried, very worried about anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 teachers being laid off this year.  We have school districts — due to the horrendous budget times, conditions they’re facing — looking to eliminate summer school this summer, eliminating after-school and extracurricular activities, going to four-day weeks, not five-day school weeks…None of this is good for children.  None of this is good for education.  None of this is good for the economy.  So we are urging Congress to move with a real sense of urgency to pass this legislation.”

Many Republicans oppose the measure, citing previous federal outlays for education, the size of the federal deficit, and the fact that the bill forces no spending cuts elsewhere in order to pay for itself.

“Fundamentally, what you’re seeing is the failure of the stimulus,” Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), chairman of the Republican House Policy Committee, told Fox News.  “What we’re looking at here in Michigan is 14 percent unemployment; nationally, we’re looking at 9.9 percent.  We’ve seen a spike in jobless claims — all of which was supposed to have been prevented by the trillion dollars this administration already spent to ‘create or save’ jobs.

“When you look at the overall economy, that is really what undergirds the financing of education in the United States, both at the local level and at the state level.  So as Washington continues to try to go toward emergency measures, three things become patently obvious: One, the stimulus has failed.  Two, they’re delaying the real necessary restructuring of government that is required to have a sustainable tax base that is growing, for educators to be employed.  And third,” McCotter added with a flash of deadpan humor, “given the Democrats’ record number of deficits, debt and spending, there does auger an argument for more math teachers.”

Education analyst Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., said roughly one-third of the $100 billion the Department of Education received in last year’s stimulus bill remains unspent.  She also questions the wisdom of funneling federal taxpayer funds, in any amount, to the public school system as it is presently structured.

“More federal funding is not going to solve states’ fiscal problems and could in fact exacerbate those problems, by really preventing states from making the difficult budgetary decisions necessary to reduce costs and effect long-term systemic education reform,” Burke told Fox News.  “The real problem within the public education sector has been more and more non-teaching staff positions.  These positions continue to grow and really put a strain on state budgets.  Roughly half of those people employed by the public education sector are in non-teaching positions, and at the same time we see ever-decreasing class sizes.  In the 1960s, class size was about 27:1 student-teacher ratios.  Today those ratios are closer to 15:1….There are things that states could do to reduce costs, and they don’t need another bailout from Washington for public education.”

The Keep Our Educators Working Act has garnered support from some predictable quarters – and opposition from some surprising ones.  Interviewed in Minneapolis during a nationwide tour of beleaguered local school districts, many of which are already laying off teachers and closing down vital programs, Randi Weingarten, herself a former teacher and now president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, told Fox News the $23 billion is urgently needed to avert further “draconian” measures.

“Nobody is asking for it on an ongoing basis.  We’re asking for it because we see on the ground, in school after school, the consequences of devastating cuts,” Weingarten told Fox News.  “In the ’70s, I watched what happened in New York City when…we lost a generation of kids….You don’t get to ‘do it over’ if you’re five years old.  You’re only five once — and therefore, that’s part of the urgency here.”

Asked about the $34 million in stimulus funds that the Education Department has purportedly left unspent, Weingarten said that all of the funding that the stimulus intended for public school systems was, in fact, doled out – and done on an “equity basis,” with the most cash-starved school districts first to receive the funding.  “The monies that actually went to avert the direct effects of the greatest recession since the Great Depression were about 50-some-odd billion, of which some went to also ensure that we hired and maintained cops and other civil servants,” Weingarten said.  “The money that was allocated last year was allocated on an equity basis to various different states.  So ultimately we have encouraged states to spend those funds.  But what I am talking about is that the states that have spent it do not have the funds this year to go forward.  And we’re seeing that in state after state in their budget crises.”

But the Washington Post editorial board urged lawmakers to reject the measure.  In an editorial published May 14 under the headline, “Red Ink in the Classroom,” the Post lamented that last year’s stimulus bill had created among educators “an unfortunate expectation of yet more federal dollars to bail out the states.”  “Should the federal government spend money it doesn’t have to let school systems operate beyond their means?” the editorial asked.  “We might have had a different view of this measure if its sponsors had figured out a way, as they promised with their adoption of pay-go guidelines, to pay for it rather than simply add to the nation’s fast-growing national debt.”

President Obama has already indicated his support for the Miller-Harkin measure.  Addressing educators at the White House during the annual Teacher of the Year ceremony on April 29, the president claimed the stimulus bill had saved the jobs of 400,000 teachers – a figure higher than Weingarten used, in her interview with Fox News – and said: “I believe these efforts must continue, as states face severe budget shortfalls that put hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk.  We need, and our children need, our teachers in the classroom.”

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