Thursday, May 6, 2010
One of the precious few points of consensus in our polarized land is that we need to do a better job educating our kids. But consensus, apparently, gets you only so far. In red states and blue, in urban, suburban and rural districts with unionized and non-unionized teachers, the story is the same: The worst recession since the 1930s is clobbering the nation's schools.
In Indiana and Arizona, the legislatures have eliminated free all-day kindergarten. In Kansas, some school districts have gone to four-day weeks. In New Jersey, 60 percent of school districts are reducing their course offerings. In Albuquerque, the number of school district employees is down 10 percent. In the D.C. suburbs, Maryland's Prince George's and Virginia's Prince William counties have increased their class sizes.
A recent American Association of School Administrators survey of 453 school districts in 45 states shows how bad things are. One-third of the districts are looking at eliminating summer school this year. Fourteen percent are considering going to four-day weeks (last year, just 2 percent did). Fully 62 percent anticipate increasing class size next year, up from 26 percent in the current school year. The teacher-to-pupil ratio, the AASA says, will rise from 15 to 1 to 17 to 1.
Nationwide, estimates of teacher layoffs range from 100,000 to 300,000, with some experts pegging the most likely number nearer the high end. Layoffs are likely to be hardest on the youngest teachers -- "probably the most tech-savvy teachers we have," says Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee. Nor do many talented, young people elect to enter the profession, he adds, when the profession is shrinking.
One of the signal accomplishments of the Obama stimulus package enacted last year was to spare school districts from more draconian cuts. Of the $787 billion legislation, $100 billion was directed to schools; while districts still had to lay off teachers and reduce course offerings, hundreds of thousands of layoffs and other cuts were averted. In California, for instance, the state's inspector general of stimulus spending found that the federal program funded 50,138 education jobs in 2009 that would otherwise have been lost.
But the $100 billion that the feds sent to the schools is largely spent, and no omnibus second stimulus looms. One problem with the current wave of deficit hawkery is that while it purports to be concerned with the nation's long-term debt, its immediate consequence is to block spending that could speed the recovery and restore sounder financial footing. By defunding education, however, it endangers our short-term recovery and our long-term economic prospects. Not to mention the development of America's children.
"You can't just push the pause button on kids' education and say, 'Wait a while,' " says Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, who chairs the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Yet there is little willingness in Congress to craft another broad stimulus package even though education provisions plainly enhance the nation's ability to create a globally competitive workforce.
There is also little support for finding offsetting cuts or tax hikes to pay for such a bill. Accordingly, Miller and Harkin have introduced legislation in their respective houses narrowly targeted to saving the schools. Each has authored a provision to allot $23 billion to education for the coming fiscal year, with the hope of including it in the next supplemental appropriation bill that contains emergency appropriations that don't have to be offset by cuts or tax hikes. (Miller's provision also includes an additional $2 billion to help local governments avoid laying off police officers and firefighters.)
"I know that senators and congressmen are concerned about the debt," says Harkin. "But if there's one area where it should be not just permissible but wise to borrow from the future, it's education. There isn't a family in America that wouldn't say it's okay to borrow money to help their kids go to college. Why is it wrong to borrow money to make sure there's a college for those kids to go to?"
Why, indeed? It is a mantra of the deficit hawks that they are working to ensure their children and grandchildren will one day have the same opportunities that they have had. But right now, in real time, those same children and grandchildren are having those opportunities taken away. Assuming that the deficit-phobes' concern for the young, and for America's future, isn't simply a cloak for other agendas, they need to support Miller and Harkin's legislation. Their bills protect America's future -- and that future is now.