Education Opinion

Teachers Next on the Budget Chopping Block?

By Anthony Cody — November 23, 2008 3 min read
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We are seeing a cathartic and disruptive economic realignment occur before our very eyes. Our auto industry has failed to anticipate shifting demands, and is now in a very difficult position. The industry sold 16 million cars last year, and will only sell 12 million this year. The challenge the industry faces is that what they have become accustomed to doing no longer works.

The rest of us are also in for an economic storm of monumental proportions. As teachers, we may feel a bit less vulnerable than people in other sectors, but we are not immune. The source of our pay is being rapidly eroded – there is just a lag before we will feel the full effect. My state of California is facing a $28 billion budget shortfall this year – and that is about 20% of the state’s budget. Roughly 40% of the state’s budget goes to public education, and teacher pay and benefits make up a large component of that. Connecticut faces a $6 billion shortfall, and state support to schools is likely to be cut by as much as 30 percent. Other states across the country are in similar dire straits, and will be looking at ways to cut costs.

Unlike the auto industry, the source of this crisis has nothing to do with our ability to sell our product. Nonetheless, crises such as these are being used across the country to destroy the living standards of working people, and teachers need to be prepared. The auto industry is about to go bankrupt, and some, such as Mitt Romney, are cheering the prospect because it will allow the reduction of worker’s pay and retirement benefits.

Teacher unions played an important role in winning the pay and benefits we now have. If you entered a school in the United States in the 1920’s you would probably find elementary teachers who were exclusively female, and paid at a significantly lower rate than high school teachers. Teachers served at the pleasure of local school boards, and faced arbitrary dismissal. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers had a combined membership of less than 100,000. The Great Depression of the 1930’s put tremendous pressure on the profession, and many teachers were forced to sign loyalty oaths and contracts pledging not to join a union. The Depression shrank tax revenues, much as we are seeing happen today. Schools lacked money for basic supplies, and teachers copied texts longhand so students would have enough copies. Sound familiar?

Today, the AFT and NEA have more than four million members, making these the largest unions in the nation. Our profession is too big a target to remain secure in the coming tribulations. We too will soon find ourselves the target of editorials complaining about our “Cadillac health care,” overly generous retirement benefits, and luxurious summers spent lolling at the beach. The teacher unions helped win our rights and benefits, and will continue to be valuable in defending them.

The quality of our schools absolutely depend on steady investment. Over the past decade we have greatly increased the demands on our schools. We want lower dropout rates and improved student performance, but the funding has not risen to match these demands. The teaching profession can attract and retain talented, creative teachers only when we offer a sustainable package of pay and benefits.

On the bright side, we will soon have an administration in Washington decidedly more sympathetic than its predecessor. Linda Darling-Hammond, one of Obama’s leading advisors, has defended his plans to increase federal spending on education by $29 billion. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle report provides her perspective.

This is decimal dust in the federal budget," she said. The $29 billion Obama wants to add for education "is less than 10 percent of the weapons cost-overrun announced last summer," she said. "It's less than 1 percent of what the bailout is anticipated to cost."

Unfortunately, school funding is primarily a local and state function, so even this increase will not supplant the shortfalls we are seeing.

The genius of FDR was that he understood that the only way our economy would emerge from the Depression was if ordinary people were put to work, and our infrastructure was strengthened. Our schools are an important part of our nation’s infrastructure. In the plan Obama announced this week to create 2.5 million jobs, the modernization of schools is a major project. Hopefully our states will realize that modern school buildings won’t do much good without expert teachers. The future of our society depends on how well our children are educated. Just as in the Great Depression, our unions will have an important role in allowing us to stick together as teachers to make sure our profession and our schools remain a priority.

What does the budget look like in YOUR state? How do you think teachers should respond to the threat of major cuts due to the recession?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.