Sen. Harkin proposes $23 billion bailout for schools

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; 4:55 PM

As public schools nationwide face larger class sizes and cuts in programs, the Senate's leading Democrat on education issues proposed a $23 billion bailout Wednesday to help avert layoffs of tens of thousands of teachers and other school personnel in the coming academic year.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), a potential sequel to the economic stimulus law enacted last year, joins the mix of spending initiatives the Democratic-led Congress will consider this spring on issues such as aid to small business and appropriations for the war in Afghanistan.

Educators nationwide are warning that their finances have been stretched to the breaking point. The Prince George's County school board has approved a budget that slashes 800 positions. The Fairfax County school board has approved a salary freeze and cut of more than 200 positions. Los Angeles schools have notified 5,200 teachers, principals and other staff members that their jobs may be cut.

"You name it -- teachers, administrators, counselors, school nurses, cafeteria workers, support personnel are part of an exodus forced by financial realities," Ramon C. Cortines, Los Angeles schools superintendent, told senators in an appropriations hearing.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan estimated that school layoffs could total from 100,000 to 300,000 unless Congress acts.

"It is brutal out there, really scary," Duncan told reporters on Capitol Hill. "This is a real emergency. What we're trying to avert is an education catastrophe."

Duncan stopped just short of endorsing Harkin's bill. But he said efforts to improve schools will suffer if class sizes rise, summer school is cut and other programs are jettisoned.

Harkin, chairman of the Appropriations Committee's panel on education and of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said time is running out because states are starting to issue layoff notices. "We must act soon," he said. "This is not something we can fix in August. We have to fix it now."

Whether his bill will gain traction remains to be seen. As of Wednesday afternoon, the bill had at least 13 Democratic co-sponsors, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.), but no Republican endorsements. Bipartisan support would help the spending bill sidestep a potential filibuster.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said after the hearing that he was considering Harkin's proposal. "We cannot get ahead by under funding education," he said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he worried about where the government would find $23 billion for a bailout in a time of growing federal budget deficits. "I wonder from whose schoolchildren we are going to borrow this money, because we have a looming debt crisis in this country and we'll need to debate this," he said. "We all want to help our children and our schools, but that is a deep concern."

In December, the House approved a spending bill of similar scope to help save education jobs. But that measure stalled in the Senate.

The economic stimulus law enacted in February 2009 provided nearly $100 billion for education, much of it to help states avoid layoffs following the deepest economic recession in decades. But that source of aid will soon run out. Even though the economy appears to be recovering, state and local tax revenues remain stagnant. As a result, educators face what experts call a "funding cliff."

Last week the American Association of School Administrators reported 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.

In California, the budget situation is so bleak that more than 20,000 educators have been given notice they might not be rehired in the next school year. Actress Megan Fox was moved to produce a nearly four-minute video that dramatizes the school budget crisis. In the video, circulating on the Internet this month, a clueless Fox wanders into a classroom stuffed with several dozen students who assume she has become their instructor.

"Wait, you guys don't have a teacher?" she asks.

"She was laid off," replies one girl.

"And then they combined art class with another teacher's class," says another.

Fox concluded the video with an appeal targeting California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R): "Make your voice heard. Call, write and annoy the governor until he cries for his mommy."

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