Education Jobs Bill Faces Tough Climb in Congress
$23 Billion Sought to Stem Massive Layoffs in Schools
Against a current of political resistance—including from some Democrats—the Obama administration and congressional leaders continue to seek new strategies to pass a $23 billion measure aimed at helping schools stave off what could be massive layoffs.
The effort to advance the bill before Memorial Day met with bipartisan opposition in both chambers, including from the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition of Democrats, who worried about the impact of the measure on the federal deficit. The legislation’s sponsor, Rep. David R. Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, decided to pull the bill from committee consideration.
That doesn’t mean that Rep. Obey has decided to abandon the bill, said Ellis Brachman, his spokesman. He said the chairman postponed the committee’s vote on the legislation because of other pressing business.
“We’ll have to see what happens when members get back in town” the week of June 7, Mr. Brachman said.
Education advocates say Mr. Obey will continue to champion the legislation. And the administration and organizations that support the bill, including both national teachers’ unions, were using the one-week post-Memorial Day recess to make the case that the $23 billion is urgently needed to prevent the loss of what the bill’s sponsors project to be some 300,000 education jobs. Some analysts consider that estimate a worse-case scenario, however, and expect that there will be fewer jobs lost.
“It’s definitely not dead,” said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition of education groups.
But some observers say the legislation faces uphill odds, particularly given Democratic opposition.
“What’s happening now is that these big [spending] numbers that folks on [Capitol Hill] were comfortable with a year ago, they are increasingly less comfortable,” said Jason DeLisle, the director of the federal education budget project at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington.
“Twenty-three billion is a big number,” he said. “We’re going into an election, and [we’ve seen] trillion-dollar, back-to-back deficits. … I think we’re reaching the breaking point politically.”
And, he said, given the still-dismal fiscal picture in most states, it’s unclear just when school districts will stop needing federal aid to keep spending at current levels.
Lawmakers are asking themselves, “Can we do this every year?” said Mr. DeLisle, who served as an aide to Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee. “It looks like a sort of fundamental restructuring [of K-12 spending]. It’s not a hiccup.”
Congressional champions of the education jobs legislation have had a tough time pinpointing the right strategy for getting it passed. Originally, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees education spending, had planned to introduce the measure as an amendment to a must-pass emergency-spending bill aimed at financing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But later he acknowledged that he didn’t have the 60 votes needed to cut off debate.
The legislation was seen as having a better shot in the House of Representatives, which had already approved $23 billion for education spending last December as part of a broader package aimed at spurring an economy still feeling the impact of the recession. But it’s unclear whether some conservative Democrats will support the bill if legislative leaders don’t find a way to offset the cost.
Mr. DeLisle suggested the administration and congressional leaders could wait until after the November midterm elections and include the $23 billion in a broader omnibus spending bill financing a number of federal agencies.
But advocates argue that schools need the money as soon as possible so they can plan their budgets for the 2010-11 school year.
“We need this to happen now,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of policy and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va. “There’s a tremendous amount of planning that happens prior to the start of the school year.”
The U.S. Department of Education is optimistic about passage.
“Every indication we’ve received is that there is a strong commitment to do this when Congress returns” from its holiday break, spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya said. “The administration is committed to securing funding to prevent teacher layoffs.”
Proponents of the legislation are continuing their lobbying efforts.
The National Education Association, for instance, has begun airing a series of television ads featuring children dressed as Wall Street bankers. In the ads, the children make a comparison between Congress’ support of relief for the financial sector and a need for education aid. The union has bought airtime in 14 states and the nation’s capital.
There may be another fiscal impact for federal K-12 spending if Rep. Obey’s legislation doesn’t pass. The measure would also have included $5.7 billion to help shore up the Pell Grant program for college students, which is facing a major shortfall as more students seek additional schooling to beef up their skills during the economic downturn.
If that money doesn’t end up being part of the emergency-spending bill, Mr. Packer said, the Pell Grant deficit will have to be covered through the regular appropriations process. That could mean less money for other education priorities, including Title I grants to districts to help disadvantaged students.
Under Mr. Obey’s bill, money would flow directly to a state’s governor, who would then distribute it to school districts based on state formulas or the federal formula for Title I aid. Districts could then use the money to restore jobs, hire new staff members, or otherwise pay for employee compensation, benefits, and on-the-job training. The money could be used for positions in early-childhood and K-12 education, but not higher education.
Vol. 29, Issue 33, Pages 22,26