The American Association of School Administrators commemorated National Teacher Day today with a depressing announcement, the result of its latest survey of school superintendents. About 275,000 of the teachers and support staff we're all supposed to be thanking this week are likely to face layoffs before the coming school year.
What they need, more than apples, cookies or construction-paper cards: About $23 billion.
It's "pink slip season" in public education, and in a quirk of recession economics, school districts across the country are on the verge of a crisis dramatically worse today than what they faced two years ago when the economy first started to dive.
Home foreclosures and high unemployment have wrecked education budgets funded largely by property and state income taxes. We appear now to be in a "jobless recovery," with employment lagging behind every other indicator of economic improvement. As it turns out, lagging even further behind the jobs are the school budgets.
To make matters worse, the stimulus money — $100 billion of which went to education — is almost gone.
"The train wreck of the foreclosure crisis, state budgets being in the tank and the recovery money running out really has caused a catastrophic event," said Kim Anderson, director of the National Education Association's government relations department.
"The situation is as dire as we've ever seen it," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA.
He went on to quote a couple more stats: 82 percent of school districts are planning to eliminate positions in the coming year, and 63 percent of those layoffs will affect teachers. The ratio of teachers to students nationwide (a measure different from class size) will go from 15:1 to 17:1. And every 100,000 lost education jobs will lead to another 30,000 jobs lost elsewhere in the economy due to lower school spending and the decreased income of teachers.
The Recovery Act, by comparison, is estimated to have saved about 300,000 jobs in education.
"That would suggest," Domenech added, "basically we're going to wipe out all the gains as a result of the stimulus."
To solve the problem, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has proposed a one-year, $23 billion "Keep Our Educators Working Act," which has been heartily endorsed by both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In the jargon of the day, the bill amounts to an education bailout.
"I kind of like that," Domenech said of a word that's become toxic in so many other settings. "We bailed out Wall Street, we bailed out the banks. It would be nice to bail out our kids."
Never mind teacher appreciation week; now may be just the time to float the idea as Capitol Hill is swarming with bailed-out bankers lobbying against financial reform legislation.
As a country, can we possibly bail out Morgan Stanley and General Motors but not the Atlanta and Dallas public school districts? As far as necessary evils go, Congress has set the bar pretty low.
Still, Harkin's bill currently has no GOP co-sponsors (although Anderson said she's heard positive word from some Republicans who have not necessarily leant their names to the bill). Chief among their concerns is this comment from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.,: "I wonder from whose schoolchildren we are going to borrow this money."
Proponents argue that future schoolchildren will lose out, too, if these 275,000 layoffs go down, setting a permanent lower baseline for school staffing levels.
If the bill does go through, Domenech says it will need one significant change from the earlier stimulus funds earmarked for education. Many states used those federal dollars to offset — not supplement — state funds for education, diverting the newly freed local money for non-education purposes.
Time is running out to pass the legislation, a one-year stopgap after which educators hope the economy — and their tax revenue and budgets — will finally stabilize.
"The window for us, I seem to think, is between now and Memorial Day," Domenech said. "This thing basically has to happen this month. Otherwise, it's not going to happen. This is the time districts are making those decisions and those pink slips are going out."