Rebell, Henig Weigh In On Federal Teachers Jobs Bill | Teachers College Columbia University

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Rebell, Henig Weigh In On Federal Teachers Jobs Bill

On August 10, President Obama signed an emergency bill authorizing $10 billion in funding for states to head off tens of thousands of teacher layoffs. Here TC's Michael Rebell and Jeffrey Henig assess some of the bill's pros and cons.


On August 10, President Obama signed an emergency bill authorizing $10 billion in funding for states to head off tens of thousands of teacher layoffs. The bill is part of a broader $26 billion package to help states reeling from deep budget cuts. The U.S. Department of Education said the one-time infusion, which can only be used to pay teachers, would save an estimated 160,000 teacher jobs, more than half the number that the Council of Economic Advisers had warned could be lost to state budgets cuts.

The bill passed on mostly party lines, with Republicans calling it a hand-out to teachers’ unions in an election year and sharply criticizing it for contributing to a rising Federal deficit. Some said education payrolls, far from needing bailouts, were bloated and inefficient and needed to be cut, not sustained.

TC faculty members Michael Rebell, Professor of Law and Educational Practice, and Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education -- both experts in education policy and finance -- praised the measure as helpful, if not a long-term fix to states’ severe budget problems. They answered the following questions about the bill (Click Here to view) :


  1. Is it good policy?


Rebell:  It is good policy. Almost all states have budget and fiscal crises that are undermining the adequacy and stability of education funding, so anything the Federal government can do to shore up education funding is good policy. All states are so desperate for relief from the disaster ahead.


Henig: Averting teacher layoffs generally is a good thing—for the teachers and students, for the communities that might otherwise be forced to raise class sizes or go through wrenching political decisions to re-program funds. It’s probably good from the standpoint of the overall economy, as well.


  1. Will it accomplish what its proponents say it will?


Rebell:  The original version of this bill called for $23 billion. The final version, $10 billion, is a lot better than nothing, but it will [only] partially accomplish what its proponents say it will.


Henig: This is not so much an education reform bill as it is a jobs bill and an

effort to keep the current fiscal crunch from unraveling education reforms where

they are under way. It will save some districts from having to cut staffs and raise

class sizes. So this is a case of minimizing damages due to state and local

budgetary crises, not one of adding real muscle to the education enterprise.


  1. What are the dangers that it won’t, and why?


Rebell: The amounts involved are clearly not sufficient. Here’s an example:  The New York State legislature has already cut $1.4 billion from its education budget, and depending on whether Medicaid revenues are sufficient, something in the range of $100 million further is going to be cut from the education budget. This bill would give us approximately $600 million in New York State for education. So, something like $500 million against roughly $1.5 billion will still have to be cut in K-12 spending.


Henig: As is common when Congress has to negotiate a bill that will win a supporting coalition, the benefits are spread around in ways that may not closely align with state and community needs.


  1. Will states cut education spending by the same amount or more than the Federal government is giving them, so that there won’t be a net gain in funding?


Rebell: No. The law requires that states use this money to try to come as close as possible to their previous year’s budgets. Also, the bill is clear that the money has to be used for jobs for teachers, not programs or equipment or other budget items.


Henig: It’s not possible to precisely steer states and communities from Washington D.C., so it’s possible this will occur to some degree. But state and local leaders face their own pressures to avoid lay-offs, so most will welcome the opportunity to use the federal money as Congress intends.


  1. Is this a teachers’ jobs bill?


Rebell:  Most state constitutions now guarantee all students a sound, basic

education. Stable, adequate funding is essential to that. We’re facing a disaster

to children’s rights to a decent education, and anything that is done to help the

states to meet their constitutional obligations and students’ real needs has to be

considered a positive development.


I would prefer to have the state governments and the Federal government look at

the situation from the point of view that kids have a right to a sound and basic

education, and if the Federal government can help with that, that’s where the

focus should be. When it comes to children’s education, we’ll take help from

anywhere we can get it.


Henig: Not if that means “is this nothing more than a teachers’ jobs bill?” But is

it to some extent that? Yes.


The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not reflect the views of the faculty, administration or staff of Teachers College or Columbia University.

Published Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010


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