David Obey's bankrupt idea to bail out teachers

Charles Lane
Copyright 2010
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; 4:11 PM

I???ve argued previously that spending $23 billion in federal money to prevent teacher layoffs is a bad idea, in part because it enables state and local governments to put off structural reforms -- pedagogical, administrative and financial. Now comes the bill???s leading backer, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) to make the inverse relationship between the teacher bailout and reform explicit. Having failed to get the $23 billion, he???s promoting a $10 billion substitute -- paid for in part by cutting $500 million from President Obama???s innovative Race to the Top reform effort, as well as $300 million from charter schools and performance-pay model programs. Obey calls reform a ???luxury??? the country cannot afford during the recession. This myopic agenda mimics that of the teacher unions, whose trusty ally Obey has been for 41 years in Congress. He???s retiring this year, but apparently can???t resist one last misguided fight. "Any teachers' job you save is a job that ought to be saved," he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. But, of course, the teacher layoff menace is exaggerated to begin with. Teacher unions and Obey based their alarmist case on the number of early-year layoff notices, despite the fact that this indicator has historically over-predicted layoffs. And, sure enough, the latest news confirms this: ?In Los Angeles, public schools have rescinded all but about 600 of the 3,100 pink slips they sent out in March. Why? Retirements created openings -- as happens every year between spring and fall -- and the teachers union agreed to modest wage restraint. ?Oceanside, Calif., plans to lay off only 25 teachers, far fewer than the 118 who received layoff warnings in March. Retirements and pay concessions by the union saved many of the jobs. ?North Carolina found enough money in budget savings and state lottery receipts to save 1,600 teacher jobs. Among the cuts was a long-needed reform, worth $9 million, that ended a de facto tuition subsidy for athletes at state universities. ?Chicago, with help from the state of Illinois, has managed to reduce teacher layoffs from a projected 2,700 to about 1,200 and maintain class sizes at normal levels. Even more jobs can be saved if teacher unions will forgo a scheduled 4 percent pay increase, a modest sacrifice in a time of near-zero inflation. After all, just up the road in Ann Arbor, Mich., 191 layoffs have been canceled because teachers accepted wage restraint to save their colleagues??? jobs. See a pattern? The school funding crisis is no fun for anyone, and it surely complicates the already tough job of educating kids. Layoffs are heartbreaking for teachers who lose their jobs -- just as they are for all the other Americans who have lost their jobs in this recession but were not singled out for special government protection. But there is no proven link between per capita education spending and actual student learning. If they were causally connected, Newark, N.J., would have the best-performing schools in the state, instead of the worst. The current crisis has the beneficial effect of forcing state and local governments -- and, crucially, teacher unions -- to decide how many teachers are really needed and how they???re going to pay for them. Jobs that get preserved this way are more likely to prove sustainable over time. Any jobs that David Obey might save would only be safe until the next time they require a federal bailout.

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