Red ink in the classroom

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Friday, May 14, 2010

THE FEDERAL government sent an unprecedented $100 billion to schools last year as part of the stimulus package. The aim was to avert draconian cuts in school personnel and programs while fostering reform. Whether the government got its money's worth is debated, but it seems one result is an unfortunate expectation of yet more federal dollars to bail out the states.

Congressional Democrats are pushing to provide $23 billion more to help states stave off layoffs stemming from shortfalls in local and state budgets. The Keep Our Educators Working Act, sponsored by the two congressional education committee chairmen, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), is patterned on the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund included in last year's $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Money could be used to retain employees or to hire them. It also could be used for on-the-job training.

Many school systems are having to lay off teachers, curtail instruction or shut programs. But should the federal government spend money it doesn't have to let school systems operate beyond their means? Inflated property rolls gave localities windfalls during the past decade that they used for generous salaries and benefits; the federal government cannot close the gap indefinitely.

The congressional measure fails to use dollars in a way that would have the most impact. The money would be spread around according to blanket formulas, not sent to poorer jurisdictions. It would not be linked to the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition, which rewards states that show seriousness about improving public schools. A coalition of reform organizations, including the Education Trust and the New Teacher Project, has joined with the Children's Defense Fund to argue that new federal money should be linked to reforms allowing teacher quality to be considered in layoff decisions.

We might have had a different view of this measure if its sponsors had figured out a way, as they promised with their adoption of pay-go guidelines, to pay for it rather than simply add to the nation's fast-growing national debt. The federal government is already spending $1.6 trillion it doesn't have in this fiscal year; President Obama in his fiscal 2011 budget rightly warned of not borrowing against our children's futures. It is time to start making, rather than just talking about, the tough choices.


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