As school districts brace for the funding shortfall that will hit when money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act begins to dry up later this year, Democratic leaders in Congress and the Obama administration are seeking a second dose of economic aid for cash-strapped schools.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week called on Congress to approve new aid to preserve education jobs, on the same day that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the senator with the most sway on education issues, released a bill that would provide $23 billion in new education funding for states.
Secretary Duncan’s public support for such aid marks the first time the Obama administration has explicitly called for a second round of federal spending to help schools get through the ongoing fiscal squeeze.
“It is brutal out there,” Mr. Duncan told reporters after he testified before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending. “It is really scary. We’re seeing massive layoffs around the country.”
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in December that also would include $23 billion in aid for education, but the Senate has not yet taken up that measure.
In both versions of the legislation, the infusion of cash would be modeled on the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund in the federal economic-stimulus program, which distributes money based on states’ population. That fund was part of up to $100 billion in education funding included in the recovery act approved by Congress last year.
But the ARRA covers only fiscal 2009 and 2010, so states and districts are bracing for a so-called “funding cliff” when those dollars are gone. Districts throughout the nation are considering a range of measures, including eliminating summer school programs, further reducing staff, trimming benefits, and even shortening the school year.
Under the Senate bill, the new money could be used for compensation and benefits to help districts keep current employees and hire new staff members to provide early-childhood, K-12, or postsecondary services. It could also be used for on-the-job training for “education-related careers.”
The House measure also includes $4.1 billion for school facilities, an issue that Mr. Harkin has championed. But he said in an interview that while he isn’t “giving up” on the idea of more aid for school modernization, he wants to focus this package strictly on jobs.
Sen. Harkin chairs both the education appropriations subcommittee and the Senate education committee.
Working With Congress
After his subcommittee testimony, Mr. Duncan told reporters that he would like to see Congress pass an education jobs package next month so that districts could count on the aid as they work out their budgets for the next school year. He said he wasn’t sure whether the $23 billion that Sen. Harkin is proposing would be sufficient, but he called it “a good start.”
Sen. Harkin agreed that Congress needs to act quickly. The measure “can’t wait until August,” he said, when many teachers would already be out of work.
The senator said the $23 billion figure is roughly half what was in the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund portion of the stimulus package, which covered two fiscal years. The new measure would cover only the 2010-11 school year.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the education appropriations subcommittee, did not support the ARRA. But he left open the possibility that he would back a more limited package aimed only at education, saying that he was taking a look at Sen. Harkin’s measure.
During the hearing, the state schools chief in Mr. Shelby’s home state, Joseph B. Morton, urged lawmakers to support Sen. Harkin’s bill. He said he had surveyed his districts and found that, without the additional aid, more than 2,800 public education jobs would likely be cut in Alabama next year, including nearly 1,600 teaching positions.
“We know that we need a jobs bill,” Mr. Morton said.
Ramon Cortines, the superintendent of the Los Angeles school system, which recently agreed to shorten the school year by fivedays to help avert layoffs, also testified in support of the measure. He said it could save as many as 3,000 jobs in his district alone.
“Our students and teachers are losing instructional time and taking a pay cut,” Mr. Cortines said. Layoffs are still expected, he added.
Districts around the country find themselves in similarly dire circumstance, according to a report released this month by the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va.
“The cessation of ARRA dollars, paired with the continued budget strains at the state and local levels, … represents a one-two punch to education funding that will further insulate schools from economic recovery,” the report says, “and will likely translate into more budget cuts, more job cuts, and fewer resources for programs and personnel.”
The findings are based on surveys of 453 superintendents and other district-level officials from 45 states, the most recent conducted last month. Increasingly, districts are looking to layoffs, staff furloughs, benefit cuts, and other measures to fill gaping budget holes in the coming school year.
Most districts surveyed—87 percent—also said that they had not seen an actual funding boost from the recovery act, in part because many states cut their own education aid, diverted money to other purposes, and then used federal dollars to backfill K-12 cuts. That “shell game,” as the report calls it, was not explicitly prohibited under the stimulus law.
Many districts are considering drastic cost-saving measures, according to the report.
For instance, 90 percent of those surveyed expect personnel cutbacks in the 2010-11 school year, on the heels of a year in which 68 percent of those surveyed slashed positions.
Districts also are reducing employee-benefit packages. Forty-six percent of those surveyed said they planned to trim health-care benefits in 2010-11, compared with 12 percent in 2009-10. And 20 percent of the respondents said they would consider reducing pension contributions in 2010-11; only 3 percent gave that answer in 2009-10.
Just over a third of those surveyed, or 34 percent, said they were contemplating personnel furloughs during the 2010-11 school year. Twelve percent of districts implemented furloughs in 2009-10.
Schools also are increasing class sizes as a result of budget pressures. About 62 percent of the districts surveyed said their classrooms would be more crowded in the 2010-11 academic year, up from 26 percent in the current school year and 9 percent in 2008-09.
About a third of the respondents said they were considering eliminating summer school programs, up from 14 percent in the 2009-10 school year. And 13 percent of respondents are mulling a four-day school week, up from just 2 percent in 2009-10 and 2008-09.
“This survey clearly illustrates a need for additional emergency funding for schools,” said Noelle M. Ellerson, a policy analyst at the AASA. And she said any new measures should include language prohibiting states from using federal money to supplant their own efforts in education.
A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Pressure Building for Fresh School-Jobs Aid