Published Online: January 5, 2010
Published in Print: January 6, 2010, as 'Education Jobs Fund' Is Aimed at Averting Layoffs

'Education Jobs Fund' Aimed at Averting Layoffs

Cash-strapped school districts hoping to avert layoffs could get a boost from legislation pending in Congress that is intended to provide a jolt to the sluggish economy, in part by creating a $23 billion “education jobs fund.”

Districts and states could use the money to restore cuts to K-12, higher education, and early education to cover the cost of compensation and benefits for teachers and other employees. The funds could also be used for services related to school modernization, renovation, and repair.

The money—which would be in addition to the infusion of up to $100 billion in education aid provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—would come from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, which was intended to help stabilize the banking industry.

The new measure, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 16, redirects $154 billion in TARP funds to job creation. It was approved on a vote of 217-212, with 38 Democrats joining all Republicans in opposing the legislation. The U.S. Senate may take up its own version of a jobs bill next month.

During floor debate, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, urged his colleagues to support the bill to stem a tidal wave of layoffs in school districts nationwide, which he said threatens recent gains in student achievement.

“All across this country, as the test scores are getting better and as proficiency is getting better among 4th graders and 8th graders, ... this recession could wreck it all,” Rep. Miller said. “Rio Vista, Texas, laid off 15 percent of its teachers. Dearborn, Michigan, just approved 200 teacher layoffs. The [Los Angeles] Unified School District laid off 2,000 teachers and maybe another 1,500 teachers next year. ... You can stop that from happening by voting for this legislation.”

Importance of Sector

As a measure of the importance of the education portion, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the speaker of the House, listed averting teacher layoffs as one of the primary purposes of the bill.

Although the jobs fund is modeled somewhat on the nearly $50 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund created under the economic-stimulus law, there are some important differences.

For instance, states wouldn’t be allowed to use education-jobs money to replenish their “rainy day” and reserve funds, directly or indirectly.

And, unlike the stimulus law, the measure doesn’t include a fund directed to governors that could be used for education but also tapped to pay for public safety and other government services. States could use up to 5 percent of the new funds to avert layoffs or hire new workers for state education agencies, many of which have weathered severe cutbacks.

The bill comes as welcome news to state advocates.

“It begins to address the funding cliff” that most states will be facing once the stimulus funding runs out in 2011, said Reg Leichty, an advocacy consultant for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

States are pleased that the bill includes money to help stem teacher layoffs, he said, as well as a modest investment for critical positions at state education agencies, since many have found it challenging to comply with the extensive reporting requirements in the ARRA while cutting back on staff.

The measure also includes an additional $4.1 billion for school construction bonds. The stimulus law had $22 billion for such bonds, spread over two years and, so far, demand has been considerable. ("Demand Soars for Stimulus-Backed Facilities Bonds," Sept. 29, 2009.)

Prospect Welcomed

The possibility of new federal relief is welcome news for states and districts that have already cut K-12 education severely. In some states, such as recession-battered Michigan, the money in the stimulus package has not completely filled yawning budget holes, requiring deep cuts in local spending.

Even though it is unlikely that the new money would completely address the state’s budget woes, it would help school districts contemplating draconian cuts that could affect instruction, said Brad Biladeau, the associate executive for government relations at the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

“I don’t think it’s a panacea by any stretch of the imagination, but any funds available to keep teachers in the classroom and avoid massive layoffs is going to be welcome news,” Mr. Biladeau said. “Local school districts in Michigan have already cut to the bone.”

The 3.2 million-member National Education Association, which championed the measure, heralded its passage and urged the U.S. Senate to act quickly.

“The timely injection of federal funds into states’ coffers is ... necessary, to keep schools open and running by education support professionals, teachers teaching and students learning at a time when many students are experiencing tremendous stress due to the economy,” Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the NEA, said in a statement.

The Senate’s version of a jobs package will likely be released next month, said Kate Cyrul, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is chairman of both the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

‘Speedy Support’

The language of the new bill includes no specific mandate surrounding key education-redesign priorities written into the stimulus legislation.

States that want to tap the fiscal stabilization fund under the ARRA have to agree to make progress on four assurances, including improving teacher quality and distribution, strengthening standards and assessments, bolstering state data systems, and stepping up efforts to turn around low-performing schools.

But the House jobs bill includes language saying those assurances don’t specifically apply to the legislation. A congressional aide said that the decision was a technical one and not intended to loosen conditions for use of the money.

The provision “removes a redundancy to bring speedy support to education jobs,” the aide said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement that nothing will change with regard to the assurances, even though the bill doesn’t specifically require states to sign off on them in order to receive the jobs funding.

“The additional $23 billion in this bill will provide states with critical funding to keep teachers teaching and students learning,” Secretary Duncan said in a written statement. “The Department of Education will continue to require states to fulfill their commitments” in the four assurance areas.

But a spokesman for Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said that by not specifically requesting assurances, the bill’s supporters could be letting states off the hook.

“This bill is in essence doling out money and asking nothing in return,” Ryan Murphy, Mr. Kline’s spokesman, said in an e-mail. “The American people are asking why this legislation is a good idea when the first trillion-dollar go-around at this type of so-called ‘stimulus’ has proven to be a phenomenal failure replete with lackluster job creation.”

Vol. 29, Issue 16, Pages 17-19

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