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Duncan Urges New Aid to Save Education Jobs

By Alyson Klein — April 14, 2010 5 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today urged Congress to pass new aid to preserve education jobs. He testified before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that deals with education spending on the same day the panel’s chairman introduced a bill that would provide $23 billion for that purpose.

The legislation offered by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would be modeled on the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund. That fund was included in the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus measure approved by Congress last year. The money could be used for compensation and benefits to help districts hold on to existing employees and to 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.”

Secretary Duncan’s public support for such aid marks the first time the Obama administration has explicitly called for new federal funding to help schools weather the continuing economic problems facing states and school districts.

“It is brutal out there,” Mr. Duncan told reporters after his testimony. “It is really scary. We’re seeing massive layoffs around the country.”

The ARRA included up to $100 billion for education. But the law only covers fiscal 2009 and 2010, so states and districts are bracing for a major fiscal squeeze—the so-called “funding cliff”—when those dollars dry up. Districts are considering a range of measures, including eliminating summer school programs, reducing staff, trimming benefits, and even shortening the school year.

In December, the House of Representatives approved a measure that would also allocate $23 billion in job aid to schools, but the Senate has yet to consider such legislation.

The House measure also includes $4.1 billion for school facilities, an issue that Mr. Harkin has championed. But he said facilities funding would not be in his version of the bill. Sen. Harkin said in an interview that, while he isn’t “giving up” on the idea of more aid for school modernization, he wants to keep the focus of this package on jobs.

Working With Congress

Following his testimony, Mr. Duncan told reporters that he would like to see Congress pass an education jobs package in May, so that school districts could count on the aid as they work out their budgets for the next school year. He said he wasn’t sure if 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, saying the measure “can’t wait until August” when many teachers would already have been put out of work.

“The number of pink slips for educators for educators could easily, easily, top 100,000,” Mr. Harkin said in his opening statement at the hearing. “Job cuts of this magnitude would, of course, have a devastating impact on families throughout the country.”

The senator said the $23 billion figure is roughly half of what was in the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund portion of the stimulus package, which covered two fiscal years. The new measure would only cover the 2010-11 school year.

During the hearing, Sen. Harkin said the cost of the bill doesn’t need to be offset by other revenue because it would be considered emergency spending. So far, his measure has attracted more than a dozen co-sponsors, all Democrats.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the top Republican on the Senate 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 his colleague’s measure.

During the hearing, the state superintendent of schools in Mr. Shelby’s home state, Joseph B. Morton, urged lawmakers to support Sen. Harkin’s bill. He said he surveyed his districts and found that, without the additional aid, there are likely to be more than 2,800 job cuts in Alabama next year, including nearly 1,600 teachers.

“We know that we need a jobs bill,” he said.

Ramon Cortines, the superintendent of the Los Angeles school system, which recently agreed to shorten the school year by five days 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.

Race to Top Complaints

During the hearing, lawmakers began to push back on the Education Department’s approach to the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, which rewards states for making progress on teacher quality and distribution, standards and assessments, state data systems, and low-performing school turnarounds. The Obama administration has asked Congress to provide $1.35 billion in fiscal 2011 to extend the program.

Forty states and the District of Columbia applied for the first round of funding, but only Delaware and Tennessee were awarded grants. States have the opportunity to compete for a second phase of funding, which will be allocated later this year.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., whose home state was a finalist for the program and was considered a front-runner, sharply criticized the judging system for the competition. She said her state, which placed eleventh in the competition, would have done better if the department had discarded each state’s highest and lowest scores.

Ms. Landrieu also said she was dismayed that the competition placed a premium on getting districts and unions to support state plans. While both the winners had near-universal backing from districts and unions, Louisiana was only able to get 67 percent of districts and 78 percent of its unions on board. That shouldn’t have cost the state its grant, she said.

“Nothing in our application was watered down,” Sen. Landrieu told Mr. Duncan. “The problem is that if you push to get everyone there, you will give us no choice but to water down. … There are many members [of Congress] ... that are absolutely taken aback by the posture of this department.”

Sen. Shelby pointed out that states only receive an additional 15 points out of a possible 500 for having a plan to boost education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.

“That seems to be low and is troubling to me,” he said. “Fifteen points out of 500 [for an area that will] drive the nation and the world in the future. …. It seems like it’s upside down; this needs to be changed.”

Sen. Harkin promised to “look into” that issue.

“That doesn’t sound like it should be,” he agreed.

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Duncan Urges New Aid to Save Education Jobs

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