Most important priority is to protect U.S. classrooms from the recession

Every day brings new reports of school districts announcing major layoffs of teachers, guidance counselors and other school employees. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified before my Appropriations Subcommittee on education that, because of budget shortfalls, as many as 300,000 teachers and other educators could be laid off in the months ahead. New York City, alone, is planning up to 6,700 teacher layoffs. 

This is a crisis of the first order.  Not since the Great Depression have our public schools faced the prospect of such massive layoffs. And the federal government has a responsibility to prevent, or at least mitigate, the destructive consequences of such drastic job cuts.

To that end, I have introduced the Keep Our Educators Working Act, a bill to create a short-term $23 billion Education Jobs Fund that states can use for retaining or hiring employees at the pre-K and K-12 levels and also at public institutions of higher education.

The Recovery Act that Congress passed last year is currently supporting more than 300,000 education jobs, including teachers, principals, librarians and school counselors.  It has been extraordinarily successful in mitigating the impact of the recession, and softening its impact on our public schools

But even with funds from the Recovery Act, many districts have been laying off workers. And when Recovery Act funding begins to run out this fall, the situation will grow dramatically worse. Without additional assistance, many states and school districts could drop off a “funding cliff.” And this would trigger a tidal wave of school layoffs.

Of course, the impact of this crisis extends beyond education jobs. According to a new survey by the American Association of School Administrators, more than a third of school districts are considering eliminating summer school next year; 62 percent are anticipating larger class sizes; and 13 percent are considering reducing operations to a four-day school week.

In addition to the direct loss of jobs in our public schools, the Economic Policy Institute estimates every 100,000 jobs lost in education translates into an additional 30,000 job losses elsewhere in the economy.

The timing of this budget crisis could not be worse for America’s public schools. States are undertaking an historic effort to create common college- and career-ready standards. In the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which I chair, we are hard at work reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in ways that strengthen the movement to improve public schools. There is an acute sense that we must invest at every level to lift our public schools to levels that will ensure our children and grandchildren will be able to compete in the global economy. 

But the proposed budget cuts and teacher layoffs could seriously derail these reform efforts. To state the obvious: We can’t improve public schools if we are laying off hundreds of thousands of teachers, raising class sizes, slashing programs and cutting instructional time. 

Congress must act. This is not something we can fix in August when the new school year begins.  We have to head off this disaster now. 

When the Senate takes up the emergency supplemental appropriations bill later this month, I will offer an amendment to add a $23 billion Education Jobs Fund – as urged by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration. Some have objected that we should not borrow for this purpose, even as they approve of borrowing to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for other national priorities. I strongly disagree.

We can’t just push hit the “pause” button on our kids’ education and say, “Wait until next year, or the year after, or whenever the economy fully recovers.”  Children only get one shot at their education. I, too, am concerned about large federal deficits. But there is one area where it is not only permissible but also wise to borrow from the future, and that is education. 

Families across America borrow substantial sums so their children can go to college. They realize this investment in education will translate into higher earnings and a brighter future. Likewise, we need to borrow prudently, today, to preserve high-quality public schools and universities.  This is an investment in our children and their future.

The Keep Our Educators Working Act is both necessary and urgent. Schools have already begun to send out layoff notices. I am pushing hard to pass this legislation in the Senate. And I am working closely with Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and David Obey (D-Wis.), who have led this effort in the House. With the administration behind our efforts, I am hopeful we will succeed.

I can’t emphasize this enough: August will be too late.  We need to act now.
Harkin chairs the Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.