Published Online: September 12, 2011
Published in Print: September 14, 2011, as Jobs Plan Highlights Education

Obama Seeks $60 Billion for Teachers, School Renovations

President Barack Obama shakes hands with House Speaker John Boehner as Vice President Joe Biden applauds before Mr. Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress last week.
—Evan Vucci/AP

President Barack Obama is putting new money to save educators’ jobs and help states refurbish aging school facilities at the center of a nearly $450 billion plan to jump-start the sluggish economy.

But his plan—which calls for $60 billion in new education spending—is sure to face hurdles in a politically polarized Washington where one house of Congress is controlled by Republicans wary of federal spending increases.

The proposals that the president unveiled in a Sept. 8 speech to Congress, including $30 billion over two years to help preserve an estimated 280,000 teacher jobs, are certain to reignite arguments about whether the nearly $100 billion for education in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 lived up to its economic and school improvement promises.

The president also is proposing $25 billion over one year for school renovations, which he said could pay for makeovers of at least 35,000 schools.

Both proposals will likely face a rough legislative road. In 2009, President Obama had hoped to include a similar grant program in the ARRA’s economic-stimulus package, but he was unable to persuade Congress to go along, even though Democrats held healthy majorities in both chambers. In 2010, the administration also struggled before winning approval of a $10 billion package aimed at keeping teachers on the job.

Similar proposals are expected to be an even tougher sell in the current, divided Congress, which already has a long to-do list, including the annual appropriations bills and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Regardless of the fate of the jobs package, lawmakers are up against a tight timeline on another major task with big implications for K-12 funding: making $1.2 trillion in cuts to overall federal spending as part of the recent deal to raise the federal debt ceiling.

Calling for Action

Mr. Obama used his speech to a joint session of Congress to outline the case for investing in education as a spur to economic growth.

The legislation “will repair and modernize at least 35,000 schools. It will put people to work right now fixing roofs and windows; installing science labs and high-speed Internet in classrooms all across this country,” he said. And if Congress passes the bill, he said, “Thousands of teachers in every state will go back to work. These are the men and women charged with preparing our children for a world where the competition has never been tougher.”

But key GOP lawmakers were quick to question the economic impact of the president’s proposals. Moments after the speech, Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, outlined the Republican arguments.

“More stimulus spending is not the right solution to our nation’s job crisis,” he said. “Common sense tells us that putting the federal government in the business of school construction will only lead to higher costs and more regulations. It also tells us that another teacher-union bailout will not ensure a quality education for our children.”

Mr. Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress—including the two top Democrats on education issues, Rep. George Miller of California, and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa—immediately cheered the package.

Sen. Harkin, the chairman of the Senate panels that oversee K-12 spending and policy, said in a statement: “The president’s call to renovate our schools is a win-win for our economy and for our children. Kids cannot be expected to reach their full potential if the school they attend is crumbling around them.”

Rep. Miller, the top Democrat on the House education panel, issued a statement saying, “Congress must put partisanship aside and seize this moment to work together to put Americans back to work and [get] our economy moving forward.” Mr. Miller recently introduced a bill to help spur local job creation through public-sector jobs.

The money for school facilities and education jobs would be included in a legislative package to be unveiled this week. President Obama said he would propose cuts elsewhere to pay for the $447 billion package, adding that his administration would provide additional details soon.

Analysts on both sides of the political aisle were quick to note the challenges the president’s plan faces.

Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, and a former longtime aide to Democrats on the House education committee, said that while pieces of Mr. Obama’s overall plan might draw bipartisan support, his proposals for teacher jobs and school construction were not likely to win the backing of Republicans.

“The political chances are very slim,” Mr. Jennings said. “The Republicans, and some Democrats, won’t support any spending programs at a time when their focus is on deficit reduction.”

The best hope, however unlikely, for Mr. Obama’s education initiatives would come if they were somehow packaged in a broader “superdeal” between Democrats and Republicans that focuses on reducing long-term spending, Mr. Jennings added.

Lindsay Burke, an education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said that after two rounds of help from the federal government, schools are growing dependent on federal coffers to avoid having to scale back hiring, which has far outpaced student enrollment in past decades. And there are both “constitutional and pragmatic” problems with using federal money to finance school construction, she said.

“We are once again seeing the president exercise executive overreach into education,” Ms. Burke said.

Supporters of the proposal recognize the political challenges, but they say they are hoping public opinion can sway recalcitrant Republicans.

“I think the American people are saying to Congress, ‘It’s time that you start caring about us,’ ” Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, said. “We have stories coming from the field, classes as large as 40 or 45 students in the elementary grades ... that’s just wrong.”

Details Emerging

Under the president’s proposal, $25 billion in school construction money could be used for emergency repairs and renovations, energy-efficiency updates, and asbestos removal. Schools also could use the money to build new science and computer labs and to update technology. An additional $5 billion would go to help retool community college facilities.

States would have until Sept. 30, 2012, to decide how to spend the construction money, according to Education Department officials. The biggest 100 districts with the greatest need would get 40 percent of the money as direct grants. The other 60 percent of the money would flow to states, which would distribute half of it through a competition. The remainder would flow to districts through a formula.

The money to preserve teacher jobs, to be spent over two years, would amount to about twice as much as districts got from the main federal K-12 program—Title I grants for disadvantaged students—this year.

Districts could use the money to pay for benefits and salaries, and to hire new staff. And states would not have to agree to sign on to the administration’s four big education reform priorities—state data systems, turnarounds of low-performing schools, improvements to teacher distribution, and boosts to standards. That’s a significant departure from the strings attached to aid under the ARRA, which sought to reform education while strengthening the economy.

Heavy Legislative Agenda

As Congress weighs the jobs package, advocates are also turning to the deficit-reduction panel, nicknamed the “supercommittee,” which has until Nov. 23 to come up with a plan for carving at least $1.2 trillion out of the budget deficit over the next 10 years.

The panel was created this summer as part of a compromise between Mr. Obama and congressional leaders on raising the debt ceiling. It is made up of 12 lawmakers—three Democrats and three Republicans from each chamber.

The committee has broad authority and is permitted to suggest specific spending levels for domestic programs, including education. But few expect the panel will take that route. Instead, committee members are more likely to consider education in the context of overall domestic discretionary spending, which also includes many health, jobs, and environmental programs.

Regardless, education proponents are watching the panel’s work closely. If the committee can’t reach agreement—or if Congress rejects its plan—deep cuts kick in that would affect almost every federal program.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization in Washington, is predicting an across-the-board cut of 9 percent for affected programs in nondefense agencies—including the U.S. Department of Education—if the committee doesn’t come up with a viable alternative.

That would amount to roughly a $4 billion cut to the Department of Education’s nearly $70 billion budget, according to the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based lobbying coalition.

“The biggest threat to education is if the [supercommittee] doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do,” said Joel Packer, the executive director of the CEF.

Meanwhile, advocates also are keeping a wary eye on fiscal 2012 appropriations legislation. Mr. Obama asked for $77.4 billion for education, a 10.7 percent increase, in part to help cover the rising cost of Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college.

But supporters agree that the overall increase is unlikely to materialize.

“At best, we will wind up with a freeze,” Mr. Packer said. “There will probably be cuts to some programs.”

What would be particularly vulnerable are programs that the president slated for consolidation in his budget request for fiscal 2012, which begins Oct. 1. Many long-standing Education Department programs, such as state grants for educational technology, were scrapped after a budget standoff earlier this year that nearly resulted in a government shutdown.

Related Blog

But some programs that House Republicans and the Obama administration sought to eliminate skated by, including the $52 million Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program.

Now, champions of those programs are worried their luck may not hold.

For instance, the American School Counselors Association is informing lawmakers about the impact the counseling program has in its districts, said Amanda Fitzgerald, the organization’s director of public policy.

Even some of the president’s priorities are on shaky ground. The high-profile Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grant programs, originally part of the 2009 federal economic-stimulus program, received small increases in fiscal 2011. But those programs may be susceptible this year, as lawmakers seek to significantly reduce spending.

Reauthorizing ESEA

Lawmakers also are pondering reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, although the House of Representatives and the Senate are taking far different approaches to the long-stalled renewal, which few observers expect to be completed this year.

At the same time, the Obama administration is preparing to offer states waivers of parts of the current version of the law—the No Child Left Behind Act—if those states are willing to embrace reform priorities expected to be outlined later this month.

The upcoming spending battles have broad implications for the waiver plan and for ESEA reauthorization in general, said Kate Tromble, the director of government relations for the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for disadvantaged and minority students.

“What happens with the funding is going to be the biggest thing to watch this fall,” she said. Creating “a new generation” of the NCLB law will “require some money. It’s difficult to figure out how you continue moving forward” on education redesign if there are significant cuts, she added.

Vol. 31, Issue 03, Pages 1,22

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