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School Finance in the Obama Era

Having spent four decades in education, there is a tendency to feel like I’ve seen it all – and trust me, I have seen a lot.  In spite of that, I agree with John Yrchik, who was recently quoted in the Hartford Courant as saying he has never seen it this bad. We have a tendency to be apocalyptic in times of crisis – particularly when it comes to school funding – and the public frequently accuses us of crying wolf, but the current crisis that local districts in Connecticut are trying to deal with is very real.

The way we fund public education in the United States remains deeply flawed, even as we inch our way toward a more federalized and centralized system. We were reminded of the structural problem when Connecticut’s highest court resuscitated the most recent school finance lawsuit launched by CCJEF (the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding).  When the case finally does get to trial the fiscal situation that the Superior Court looks at will have considerably worsened since the adequacy study was completed and the case was filed. The impending layoffs and flood of pink slips not only tragically disrupt the lives of teachers, but dampen the ecology of the school and the system that surrounds it well into the future.

On April 14  Secretary Duncan pleaded for more money to avoid layoffs in an appearance before  the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee:

And so today, on behalf of governors, mayors, educators and students, parents, business leaders, community leaders and everyone who shares the view that education is the key to our economic strength and civic vitality, I urge Congress to consider another round of emergency support for America’s schools.

If we do not help avert this state and local budget crisis, we could impede reform and fail another generation of children. The fact is that gaps for special education, low-income, and minority students remain stubbornly wide.

One in four high school students fails to graduate. Forty percent of students who go to college need remedial education. And huge numbers of young people determined to go to college and pursue a career drop out because of financial or academic challenges.

If we want reform to move forward, we need an education jobs program. Jobs and reform go hand-in-hand.

The so-called "funding cliff"...

Duncan indicated to the committee that “between 100,000 and 300,000 teachers face layoffs”, but fell short of specifically endorsing a solution. Later that week, on April 19, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities released a paper, “Premature End of Federal Assistance to States Threatens Education Reforms and Jobs”.  It indicates that the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund has saved 284,000 jobs, but school districts and other local education employers have nevertheless cut 104,500 jobs. It further indicates that “Without additional federal aid, state budget cuts will cost the economy 900,000 public- and private-sector jobs.”

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) had also just released the results of a national survey of its members, “Cliff Hanger: How America’s Public Schools Continue to Feel the Impact of the Economic Downturn.” The results report that two-thirds of members surveyed cut positions for this school year and 90 percent expect to do so for the coming year. The survey of 453 administrators also found that 62 percent anticipated raising the average class size, 34 percent were considering the elimination of summer school, and 13 percent were weighing the possibility of a four-day school week.

You may recall that back in December the House passed a jobs bill – Jobs for Main Street Act of 2010 – which contained a second stimulus directed at avoiding layoffs of teachers and other public employees. The Senate version of the jobs bill did not contain these provisions, so Senator Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and of the Senate Appropriations panel, filed a bill recently called, “The Keep Our Educators Working Act”. The bill mirrors the House passed bill and provides $23 billion for the following:

•    Compensation and benefits and other expenses necessary to retain existing employees, and for the hiring of new employees, in order to provide early childhood, elementary, secondary, or postsecondary educational and related services; or

•    On-the-job training activities for education-related careers.

Every educator should contact their Senator to urge swift passage of Senator Harkin’s bill. You can do this easily by clicking here.

The Obama education budget proposal, if implemented as recommended, would only further exacerbate the unmitigated disaster that lies ahead when the stimulus money dries up. I am referring to the proposed radical shift away from formula driven grants – the traditional mechanism for distributing federal education funds – to competitive funding. More on this later.

  1. Michael Freeman #

    Thanks for highlighting this issue Bob. Last night I participated in a telephone town hall meeting with NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. Jobs was the topic of discussion. In addition to what Bob has discussed in he blog – we discussed the fact that under A Education Jobs Fund (Keep our Educators Working Act, S. 3206) – CT is eligible for $ 257 million. Under raise to the top – CT is eligible for a minimum of $60 million to a maximum of $175 million dollars. The info is found on the NEA website. The chart which highlights the info also states the following: “The table compares funding that each state would receive (according to the Congressional Research Service) if Congress passes the Senate’s Keep Our Educators Working Act of 2010 (S. 3206) compared to the potential grant awards available to no more than 10 to 15 states in round two of the Race to the Top
    competition. Similar funding amounts for each state are also available under the House’s Local Jobs for America Act (H.R. 4812) and the Jobs for Main Street Act (H.R. 2847), each of which also contain an Education Jobs Fund of $23 billion. Under round two of the Race to the Top competition, the U.S. Department of Education has assigned strict budget ranges for each state. According to the Department, about 10 to 15 states may share in the remaining $3.4 billion that is estimated to be available from Recovery Act funds. (Delaware and Tennessee, as first-round winners, are not eligible for round two.) Only a handful of small-population states could potentially receive more funding under Race to the Top than under an Education Jobs Fund, assuming the state receives close to or the maximum award for which it
    is eligible.

    April 28, 2010

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