Reduce deficits -- but keep teachers working
At long last, Congress is getting serious about containing deficit spending, but it would be ridiculous to show it by allowing more than 100,000 teachers around the country to lose their jobs.
Whether it settles on a proposed $23 billion to prevent the layoffs or some lesser number, Congress needs to do it.
It should find offsets to keep aid to states deficit-neutral -- perhaps tapping unspent 2009 stimulus money -- but it shouldn't cut funds intended for education reform.
In fact, ideally, Congress ought to advance reform by conditioning the aid on a commitment by all states to tie teacher evaluations to student achievement. Twelve have done it already.
Republicans and Democrats seem to be united on little else these days, but action on school reform -- after decades of talk -- seems to be one of them.
But the effect of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program and President Barack Obama's Race to the Top will be diminished if teachers get laid off -- especially young teachers in high-poverty schools -- and if summer and after-school programs get canceled.
That's happening all over the country. Congress prevented it last year with $40 billion in stimulus money -- saving up to 300,000 education jobs -- and offered $4.35 billion in competitive grants that stimulated reform.
Now states actually are developing higher education standards and assessments, lifting limits on charter schools, measuring teacher effectiveness and turning around low-performing schools.
The recession is technically over, but high unemployment and the real estate slump have held down state and local revenues, so education budgets are getting slashed.
The Obama administration has been saying 300,000 school personnel may lose their jobs. The Education Commission of the States estimates 256,000. Other experts put the number at 100,000 to 150,000 classroom teachers.
Whichever is correct, it's a serious blow to reform because in 15 states, the law requires layoffs to be imposed by seniority. That's also mandated by many local district contracts with teachers unions.
In Cleveland, for instance, National Public Radio reported this month that the need to slash $54 million means firing 10 of 12 specially recruited teachers at an innovative science-focused high school who'd agreed to work year-round.
One of the country's key education reformers, Jon Schnur, CEO of New Leaders for New Schools, told me that the effect on the reform process will be "significant" if Congress lets layoffs proceed.
"It's not going to end reform," he said, "but it would require even stronger leadership from a great (local or state) leader to win support for bold reforms from teachers and the public -- for instance, to smartly renegotiate labor contracts -- when you're cutting personnel.
"And you lose a lot of talent that our kids need. Teachers in high-poverty areas will often be the first to go, so our kids with the most needs will often be the most vulnerable."
If members of Congress need a reminder of what's at stake in the schools, here are two. The U.S. Census Bureau just reported that in 2009, 49 percent of births were to non-white families. By 2020, more than half the population will be "minority."
In the meantime, only half of African-American and Latino young people graduate from high school on time. The other half is headed for a life of poverty and dependency.
The overall graduation rate is only 70 percent. The U.S. used to lead the world in high school completion. Now we rank 18th.
Second recent reminder: An Annie E. Casey Foundation analysis just showed that 67 percent of fourth-graders -- and more than 80 percent of black and Hispanic children -- scored "below proficient" on 2009 national reading tests; 33 percent -- and half of minority kids -- were "below basic."
And that tracks with tests showing that 15-year-olds rank 25th in math, 21st in science, 15th in reading literacy and 24th in problem-solving among 30 industrialized nations that the U.S. competes with.
To keep teachers working, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and David Obey, D-Wis., proposed adding $23 billion to this year's Afghanistan-Iraq war supplemental appropriation.
They failed, owing to legitimate concern over a $1.4 trillion deficit for this year and the prospect of $1 trillion a year for the next decade.
On Saturday, Obama appealed for $50 billion in aid to the states, including Medicaid assistance and funds to keep teachers and police employed.
The president's letter to Congress was greeted coldly, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., commenting that Congress is afflicted with "spending fatigue."
Republicans and moderate Blue Dog Democrats have been clamoring for spending cuts -- or at least offsets for new spending. Unspent stimulus money seems to be the current source of choice in House-Senate negotiations on the supplemental.
But some cuts make sense and others don't. Some spending is just spending, and other spending really is investment.
Education reform is an investment in future productivity. In fact, without it, America is destined to be second rate. So it's time for Congress to do what it's hired to do: set priorities. Keeping teachers working should be close to Job One.
Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.