Let’s say this much about President Barack Obama’s latest stimulus plan: At least the plan to cut payroll taxes in half for small businesses may be worth supporting. The rest? Not so much. Considering that the more than $1 trillion in stimulus subsidies offered up by the president and his predecessor, George W. Bush, has not done much to address the nation’s immediate- and long-term economic problems. And the $105 billion spent on bailing out states and school districts have done more to keep many of them from dealing realistically with decades of feckless spending — including $1.4 trillion in long-term pension deficits and retired teacher healthcare benefits — that have exacerbated the nation’s education crisis.
This latest stimulus will do even less. The $25 billion being proposed for rebuilding schools would increase spending on construction by 40 percent, which makes no sense given that the nation spends $63 billion a year on school construction and maintenance. This money is often spent badly, with as much going into expanding football fields as into classrooms. Essentially, the proposal tosses money into buildings when the nation’s education crisis has almost nothing to do with edifices.
Meanwhile the $30 billion being proposed to help school districts avoid layoffs is just another repeat of last year’s Edujobs bill, which tossed $10 billion in subsidies to supposedly save teacher jobs that, as it turned out, weren’t actually reduced. Just $2.5 billion of Edujobs money has been spent. Twenty states and the District of Columbia, for example, spent less than 5 percent of their Edujobs allotment, according to Education Week‘s analysis of U.S. Department of Education data; only four states — California, Georgia, Kansas, and South Carolina — spent 80 percent or more of the dollars they were given.
But didn’t Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have good reason to push for Edujobs? Not really. Why? Because the layoffs that were expected to come down the pipe equaled out to just a mere 1.6 percent of the 6.2 million people employed by American public education. While no one likes layoffs, that number was a pittance compared to the millions laid off in the private sector. And in the end, the layoffs didn’t materialize at all. But this isn’t surprising. In most states, school districts are required to inform teachers chosen for reductions in force (along with their National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates) about layoffs. This results in headline-grabbing stories about teachers losing jobs. But in most cases, districts — mindful of their servile relationships with NEA and AFT locals, who pull out all the stops politically and otherwise — rescind the layoffs, usually choosing to lay off school custodians and other staff, deciding to not fill open positions, or cutting expenditures in other areas. So the layoffs often don’t materialize.
Given that the U.S. Department of Education projected that some 13,000 teachers were added to payrolls in the 2009-2010 school year, according to its own annual book on school statistics, and another 24,000 should be added this past year, it is unlikely that mass teacher layoffs will happen this year. Are layoffs likely to happen in the coming years? Possibly. But given that states are facing $137 billion in budget shortfalls in the coming two fiscal years, layoffs may be necessary, especially given that there are also far too many teachers in classrooms who are failing our children through their educational neglect and malpractice. This process would be easier if not for the quality-blind reverse seniority layoff rules that require teachers to reduce teaching staffs without regard to performance in improving student achievement. But governors and legislatures need to face down NEA and AFT affiliates and toss those rules into the ashbin of history. Which is what the Obama administration supports. But this stimulus, as with previous efforts, will only delay those days of reckoning.
But, as I noted last year with Obama’s and Duncan’s push for the Edujobs bill, this latest stimulus has almost nothing to do with layoffs or with school reform. Anticipating a tough re-election, both for himself and for his fellow Democrats in Congress, Obama is looking to make sure that the NEA and AFT (with which his administration has long clashed) mobilize their members for the 2012 campaign. Given the results from last year’s bailout — the loss of full control of Congress and the following clashes with Congressional Republicans that have helped weaken the administration’s public standing — the two unions will be of little real help. In fact, as the NEA has shown in June with its vote to endorse Obama’s re-election, the Democrats clearly call the shots.
This move is really just a waste of both taxpayer’s money and time that Obama could use to rally support for the education reform efforts that have been mostly-embraced on a bipartisan level. He would be better off tossing out the education portion of this stimulus and getting back to pushing for systemic reform.