Jobs Bill May Keep Teachers Employed

Congress appears ready to pass a $10 billion measure to forestall the layoffs of thousands of teachers, as states struggle with budget deficits. The bill would save more than 100,000 jobs, but some question whether it makes sense to pad school district budgets before changes are made. And many districts already have avoided layoffs by demanding wage freezes and other sacrifices.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne is off today. She's making some preparations for a trip to Afghanistan, which is coming in September, and we'll be hearing much, much more about that in the coming weeks.

American school systems have been demanding help, and this week they may get it. Congress may pass a bill sending $10 billion to schools. The money is intended to save more than 130,000 education jobs. But the effect of that money is cloudier than it seems at first.

To find out why, NPR's Larry Abramson looked beyond the proposal and into the complexities of the education system.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Final passage of the education jobs bill would be a huge victory for teachers groups like the National Education Association, which has warned that as many as 300,000 teachers could face the ax.

Here's an NEA ad from earlier this year.

(Soundbite of NEA advertisement)

Unidentified Child #1: Our teachers are being laid off.

Unidentified Child #2: So our classes are more crowded than ever.

Unidentified Child #3: So Congress, who do I have to be...

Unidentified Child #4: ...to get your attention?

Unidentified Man: Call Congress, and tell them to pass the Education Jobs Fund.

ABRAMSON: Congress once considered spending $23 billion to save those jobs. The bill appeared to be dead, but sprang back to life last week when the Senate voted to move ahead with a $10 billion version. Some districts are already figuring out their share.

Mr. STEVE WOLLMER (New Jersey Education Association): We think it would probably bring back over 3,000 positions.

ABRAMSON: Steve Wollmer, with the New Jersey Education Association, says that's about a third of all layoffs expected in his state. And in Broward County, Florida, Superintendent Jim Notter says without the federal rescue, he'd been looking at 1,200 layoffs. His calculator says he'll save...

Mr. JIM NOTTER (Superintendent, Broward County Schools, Florida): Approximately 700 jobs.

ABRAMSON: Really? Okay. So that's a little over half of what you were looking at.

Mr. NOTTER: Yep.

ABRAMSON: But it's unclear whether the country ever really faced hundreds of thousands of teacher layoffs. Many of the districts we reached said they avoided or drastically reduced job cuts through wage freezes or other measures. Marguerite Roza, of the University of Washington, says the total would have been moderate and included many non-teaching jobs.

Dr. MARGUERITE ROZA (College of Education, University of Washington): Likely, somewhere under 100,000 in terms of total education jobs. We know from the previous year, the system lost about 80,000 jobs, which still puts it, you know, in the neighborhood of 1 percent.

ABRAMSON: And, Roza says, you have to remember, we are coming off of a boom in teacher hiring, so teacher-student staffing is still pretty strong.

Fiscal conservatives, like Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute, say we're due for a culling of the ranks because school budgets are too fat.

Mr. NEAL MCCLUSKEY (Cato Institute): All the evidence is - that we have far too many employees because we've increased employment at huge rates relative to enrollment, and seen no increase in achievement.

ABRAMSON: Many in education would argue with that. And it is clear that some districts are already feeling the pain. Steve Wollmer, of the New Jersey Education Association, says the threat of hard times persuaded many of his teachers to give up pay increases.

Mr. WOLLMER: Many of our locals did agree to wage freezes with the understanding that that would avoid layoffs, and yet they still got layoffs.

ABRAMSON: The U.S. Department of Education says the new money can be used to address wage cuts, but Steve Wollmer says that would require reopening contracts - something districts are unlikely to do. And some in Congress are worried about how states will spend the jobs money.

Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett is concerned about how his state's Republican governor, Rick Perry, will use the funds.

Representative LLOYD DOGGETT (Democrat, Texas): Because only last year, he took $3.2 billion that was intended to improve the quality of public education in Texas, and utilized it for non-educational purposes.

ABRAMSON: Doggett is referring to a dispute over the use of stimulus dollars. Now, he wants to require that Perry use this money for education - and education alone. Governor Perry has threatened to sue over that.

Like the stimulus, the jobs bill is a one-time infusion. And with state budgets facing years of drought, you may hear districts arguing for another jobs bill next year.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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