On Aug. 10, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that included a $10 billion payout to states to preserve K-12 school jobs.
Retaining or adding school employees may be a priority for the Democrat majority in Congress and their union backers. But as a national policy, Congress’ Education Jobs Fund, or “edujobs” bailout, is shortsighted and fiscally irresponsible.
Colorado’s potential share of edujobs funding figures to be about $160 million, or roughly 2 percent of the state’s yearly operational spending. Scheduled to be available to local districts and schools in September, the money may only be used to hire or rehire employees.
As another condition of accepting funds, states must agree not to shift existing state funds into other areas. This “supplement, not supplant” provision will leave Colorado lawmakers without the flexibility to address other budget needs.
To advance their agenda, union officials forwarded claims that budget shortfalls would end up cutting as many as 300,000 teaching positions. Yet a recent National Public Radio investigation finds many districts nationwide have “avoided or drastically reduced job cuts through wage freezes or other measures.”
University of Washington researcher Marguerite Roza estimates this year’s total education job losses (not just teachers) to be fewer than 100,000. It isn’t clear to what extent Colorado public schools have been affected. One estimate suggests 1,825 teaching and non-teaching positions would be cut this year, which should be more than covered by $160 million.
A modest 1 percent rollback in the public school workforce may create individual hardships (just as do job losses in the private sector), but it adds up to only a very small reversal of a long-term, and likely unsustainable, trend.
For decades our elementary and secondary schools have focused on adding teachers and support personnel, a hugely expensive strategy that scarcely has moved the needle on student achievement. Nationally, public school enrollment has grown about 9 percent since 1970, while the number of paid staff has grown 85 percent (including a 50 percent increase in teachers).
Research by the online Education Intelligence Agency shows that from 2003 to 2008, 38 states increased their teacher workforces at a greater rate than student enrollment. In states like Michigan, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the number of teaching positions grew at substantial rates while the number of students actually declined.
The one-size-fits-all, $10 billion edujobs bailout does not distinguish between states that have gone on reckless hiring binges and states such as Colorado, which has increased personnel at a rate more in line with student enrollment. The legislation rewards fiscal discipline and in discipline alike, while both delaying and intensifying future budget pain.
In return for a bailout, Congress at least could have demanded changes to policies that weight teacher dismissal policies based on seniority. No incentives were included to help end the common practice of “last in, first out.” Following such rigid union work rules helps to ensure that districts dismiss more lower-paid teachers rather than lay off the least effective instructors or reach responsible settlements to freeze wages and save jobs.
The edujobs bailout provides more than twice the resources set aside for the reform-driven $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition. It also follows the more than $100 billion in education stimulus funding authorized in February 2009. Congress and the Obama administration have staked far more money on the status quo than on substantive change.
Given long-term trends, broader economic realities and outdated school district personnel policies, the $10 billion edujobs bailout simply cannot be justified.
Ben DeGrow is education policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden. The free-market think tank’s column runs every other Monday in the Colorado Daily.