By ROBERT TOMSHO and JOHN HECHINGER | Wall Street Journal
FEBRUARY 4, 2009 - School districts across the country say an emergency federal aid package pending in Congress will go a long way toward averting teacher layoffs, but hasn't eliminated worries over the potential damage to education from the current economic slump.
Public schools and colleges would get up to $140 billion under the $819 billion economic stimulus plan passed by the U.S. House last week, with $79 billion largely designated to avoiding teacher layoffs at schools and colleges.
But some districts have already pared teachers amid the decline in state aid and tax revenues, while others say layoffs will be necessary regardless of whether the education package clears the Senate and is enacted.
Who Gets What
See how some of the major stimulus spending will be shared by the states.
With state legislatures just beginning their budget deliberations for the coming fiscal year, educators say they worry that any boost in federal funds could be offset by further cuts on the state level. School officials say it is unclear how the money will be dispersed, because states will have some discretion in doling it out.
Amid the uncertainty, last week several thousand teachers marched through downtown Los Angeles to demonstrate against state and local cuts in education spending. On Tuesday, more than 400 teachers went to the state Legislature in Albany, N.Y., to lobby against reductions in school funding.
Some budget-battered districts have already begun to pare back. Last week, the 4,500-student Normandy School District, near St. Louis, announced that it would lay off about 8% of its more than 800 employees, including 45 teachers, by the end of the month.
Faced with a $200 million budget deficit, the Los Angeles board of education recently authorized Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines to lay off up to 2,300 teachers immediately. In an interview, Mr. Cortines said he hasn't made the cuts because he thinks they would be too disruptive midway through a school year. With the district's budget deficit expected to approach $1.5 billion within two years, he says he will probably eventually have to eliminate teaching jobs with or without the extra federal money.
In New York City, the nation's largest district, school officials have estimated that, without passage of the stimulus bill, they will have to cut the jobs of about 15,000 of the district's 80,000 teachers.
Getty Images - United Teachers Los Angeles and supporters protest state and local budget cuts last week. District officials say they are facing a $500 million budget shortfall.
Joel Klein, the district's chancellor, said the federal help will reduce that number dramatically, but how much depends on the size of the infusion and how much flexibility school districts are given in determining how to spend it. "We are optimistic something positive will come out of this," Mr. Klein said, "but until the music stops, you don't know who's sitting in what chair."
David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, a statewide union, said districts in his state have begun laying off teachers. Yonkers, N.Y., has warned that it may have to eliminate 600 teaching positions, and Rochester has estimated possible job losses there at 500.
In addition to the $79 billion primarily in layoff-prevention money, the House package includes $40 billion in aid for schools with lower-income students, programs to help children with disabilities and school construction.
Under that second pot of money, Los Angeles would receive $1.1 billion over two years; New York, about $2 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Senate is considering similar provisions. Congressional aides said the money could start flowing to states within months of passage.
Jack Jennings, president and chief executive of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington nonprofit, says the measures should offset state and local cutbacks, averting layoffs but still leading to tough budget decisions.
But Mr. Jennings, a former House education aide, says it is unclear whether states such as California are spiraling into an even deeper budget hole -- which could mean that even the current billions might not be enough to prevent layoffs in the fall. "Nobody knows whether we've hit bottom yet," he said.