Amid stalled coronavirus relief negotiations, leading Democrats on a congressional education committee unveiled a proposal this week they say could safeguard up to 3.9 million education jobs threatened by the pandemic and address the effects of interrupted learning.
Alarm bells are ringing in school districts across the country about the state of their budgets in an economy hamstrung by the coronavirus. Some states have already made cuts to K-12 funding, but analysts say many of the worst effects of the pandemics on education funding are still to come. Education groups have been warning Congress about this issue for months.
To address these concerns, the Save Education Jobs Act would provide up to $261 billion to preserve teaching and other school jobs over a 10-year period. All states could draw on the money for at least six years. The funding would remain available after that six-year period until the national unemployment rate falls to 5.5 percent or below (for perspective, unemployment now stands at 7.9 percent). Individual states with high unemployment rates could receive additional aid after that time frame.
States would have to agree to maintain their own education funding at certain levels in order to tap the relief. And at least 90 percent of the money would have to go to school personnel salaries and benefits.
“It is time we make investments to protect educators from the massive job losses we are almost certain to experience as a result of this crisis,” said Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, who introduced the legislation along with Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the House education committee chairman, and Gregorio Kilili Sablan, Mariana Islands-at Large, the chairman of the House education subcommittee for K-12.
The proposal from Democrats mirrors the Education Jobs Fund from a decade ago. This was a $10 billion program that President Barack Obama signed into law to help states and districts preserve K-12 teaching and other positions as schools struggled with the financial fallout of the Great Recession. In fact, the lawmakers behind the new proposal pointed to the success of the Education Jobs Fund but faulted lawmakers for cutting it off too soon.
The Save Education Jobs Act dwarfs the Education Jobs Fund in terms of the amount of money it could provide and how long it would be on the books, although the 2010 measure also included $16 billion in state Medicaid funding that helped shore up state budgets and therefore helped stave off school cuts.
“Economic forecasters believe that damage from this recession will last much longer than the next two years and hurt the most vulnerable students the worst,” the lawmakers said to justify the scope and length of the bill.
How exactly this sort of plan focused on K-12 jobs would factor into coronavirus relief negotiations depends on which party controls Congress and the White House starting next year, among other things. Keep in mind that based on its maximum price tag, this new proposal from House Democrats would cost more than three times what the U.S. Department of Education gets in current federal funding. So to many people, it might not come across as an especially realistic funding request.
When the Education Jobs Fund was being debated in 2010, former Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican and ranking member of the House education committee at the time, said it amounted to an “across-the board inflation of state spending” rather than being targeted to actual jobs at risk or students’ needs. He also questioned why more aid was needed after the 2009 stimulus that provided $100 billion for education.
Republicans could revive those concerns about the breadth and nature of this latest and other education relief proposals. For example, GOP senators have signaled opposition to relief funding for state and local governments that would directly and indirectly benefit schools, but Democrats have made that relief a top priority.
And it remains to be seen how much relative influence the GOP and Democrats will have on this process after the Nov. 3 election. Democrats controlled the White House—as well as the House and Senate by relatively comfortable margins—when they passed the Education Jobs Fund in 2010.
The Save Education Jobs Act’s total maximum price tag is also significantly higher than education aid provided in the latest coronavirus relief package from congressional Democrats, which earmarks more than $200 billion for K-12 and higher education. That aid prioritizes immediate pandemic-driven health and learning needs and isn’t so focused on K-12 positions.
The bill also sends a message to the education sector that Democrats will prioritize K-12 going forward. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, along with a host of groups focused on education civil rights, the teaching profession, and special education, have backed the proposal.
Photo: U.S. Representative Jahana Hayes (D-CT) speaking at a press conference of the Congressional Black Caucus last July. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA via AP Images)