IT IS FINALLY sinking in where it counts -- on Capitol Hill and in the D.C. Council -- that in five weeks, Washington's public schools may or may not reopen, with or without enough teachers. As parents and students have known and lamented for more than a month, hundreds of teachers -- in some instances, half of a school's faculty -- have been given dismissal notices; and money-saving proposals under consideration have included postponing the opening of school by a few weeks. But now, with precious little time to adapt, there is hope that some fiscal maneuvers may cushion the blows considerably:
In the House, the relief takes the form of a recommendation that could result in the retention of 100 teachers now facing layoffs. Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee that oversees city spending, proposed the addition of an unrequested $1 million in federal-payment appropriations to keep the teachers. The subcommittee has approved the recommendation and -- if the House agrees -- the Senate will take it up. This proposal is not a federal giveaway or a reckless undoing of reasonable austerity measures; it is nothing more than permission for the city to spend a little bit more of authorized money to retain a fraction of the school employees who otherwise must be dismissed. For the sake of some order in the classrooms, if nothing else, the measure deserves congressional approval as quickly as possible.
In the council, emergency legislation has been approved offering early retirement for those teachers who so choose -- a sensible way to pare the staff and still keep some teachers with long records of distinguished service who otherwise will have to go. There is no telling how many teachers eligible for retirement under the new law will take advantage of it, but an educated guess is that maybe 120 might seize the opportunity.
In addition, there is a proposal to eliminate two weeks of pay for all school employees, which could save perhaps 350 to 400 teachers from being dismissed in the coming school year -- though only for this one year.
Yes, if all of these proposals worked out completely, only a fraction of the teachers would have to be fired -- but that is neither likely nor wise. Lower enrollments and necessary austerity dictate some reductions. Ideally, retirements and a modest financial boost approved by Congress can do the job without "payless furloughs." But under no circumstances should reopening be put off or classroom time curtailed. Granted, there is not much time left for budget approvals, head counts of how many teachers can be afforded or reassignments of teachers to even out faculties in the school; but come next month, those school bells should ring on time.