With Nowhere Else To Cut, Teachers Are Next To Go

Tens of thousands of teachers across the country could receive pink slips in the next few weeks. After cutting their budgets to the bone and exhausting millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds, school districts have resorted to staff cuts to balance their budgets. New Jersey, California and Illinois are among the hardest-hit states.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

School districts across the country say they're facing teacher layoffs of historic proportions. If that sounds like a headline from last year, it was. But in 2009 the stimulus package saved many education jobs. Now most of that rescue money is gone, and more than 100,000 teachers stand to lose their jobs.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Projected layoffs in California: 26,000. In New Jersey: more than 6,000. Illinois: 20,000.

Unidentified People: Save our state, save our state, save our state, save our state...

ABRAMSON: In Springfield, Illinois, thousands marched on the state capitol Wednesday, demanding a tax increase to prevent more cuts to education. Teacher Don Dixon from Champagne, Illinois says his school is already coping with disastrous reductions.

DON DIXON: You know, we just laid off 153 people in the second round. The first round we laid off about 50, and it's only going to get worse.

ABRAMSON: In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie is dueling with the teachers union over the budget. He says teachers have refused to accept cuts and wage freezes. The union says the Republican governor's proposals would destroy a high-quality education system.

Barbara Keshishian is president of the New Jersey Education Association.

BARBARA KESHISHIAN: The projections for next year, his budget cuts another 820 million, plus the cuts that he's doing to our higher education funding. Altogether it's about one and a half billion dollars that are being cut.

ABRAMSON: Last year's nearly $100 billion in stimulus funding is running out, leaving states with no defense against the storm of layoffs that threaten them in the coming months.

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa says there's only one answer. He's proposed a second economic stimulus worth $23 billion.

TOM HARKIN: Are we just going to punish our kids? Are we just going to say, well, because the economy is bad, I'm sorry, we're cut classes, we're going to cut teachers, we're going to cut the school year down? Think of the ramifications that has for our economy in the future.

ABRAMSON: And many states say a Washington rescue is the only thing they have, since they've already cut down on school days or frozen wages. Analysts say this year's pain is just a result of irresponsible spending last year. They say states and schools knew they faced an endless sea of red ink; nevertheless they refused to start cutting back then.

Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute says thanks to the stimulus, they were able to push off tough decisions until now.

ANDY SMARICK: It enabled states and schools and districts to continue to have the same types of payrolls, to have the same types of programs. It really held districts and states harmless to a certain extent.

ABRAMSON: And state budget crises could jeopardize the Obama administration's plans for education reform nationwide. Union leaders like Barbara Keshishian of the New Jersey Education Association say this is another reason to resist changes like rewarding teachers for student performance - something unions already oppose.

KESHISHIAN: Because a lot of those reforms do require a pretty substantial cash flow. And since there is not much of that available to begin with, it will only make a bad situation worse.

ABRAMSON: In part, these alarm bells about massive layoffs are part of an annual ploy to win public support while legislators hammer out budget details. But some analysts say some of the alarm is real, sparked by state budget problems that go very deep.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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