Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) is sponsoring legislation to create a new $23 billion Education Jobs Fund aimed at preventing teacher layoffs.
Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said in a prepared statement the Keep Our Educators Working Act is necessary because “the country is about to face a massive wave of layoffs in our schools and institutions of higher learning.”
Harkin’s bill would provide the $23 billion funding in addition to $36 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Fund (ARRA) dollars appropriated to the Department of Education that has not yet been spent.
Not all of Harkin’s colleagues agree new spending is necessary.
“There is no doubt schools across the nation have been struggling,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). “But sticking our nation’s youth with a $23 billion tab is unacceptable, especially with $36 billion in unspent education stimulus dollars still outstanding.”
Instead of expanding the federal role in education, Coburn said, “Congress should prioritize its spending and free schools and state education agencies from costly, burdensome, and inflexible federal regulations that harm their mission.”
Avoids Budget Cuts
Katherine Mangu-Ward, a senior editor for Reason magazine who covers education reform, says the additional federal funding would free states of any obligation to make difficult budgetary decisions.
“This is not a tenable situation,” said Mangu-Ward. “States are unwilling to cut budgets that are far too big, and in particular there is a sense that education is sacred and can never be cut.
“What we’re headed for is a system where the feds appropriate teacher salaries on an annual basis. It’s hard to believe that’s what states really want,” she said.
Crisis Claims Disputed
Mangu-Ward says the “starve-the-beast” model may not be effective on the federal level but could work on the level of a single state agency.
“Give schools less money and they will work within a tighter budget,” she said. “It’s not like we’re asking them to go back to the Stone Age.
“To balance budgets in even the worst states, we’re still only talking about returning to something like 2004 levels, not anything even close to bare bones,” Mangu-Ward added. “States should not pretend that budget pressures are so brutal that the only option is to give teachers the axe.”
Mangu-Ward notes some states were willing to be fiscally disciplined and innovative in their Race to the Top applications.
‘Just a Band-Aid’
Evelyn Stacey, a policy fellow in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in California, said the Harkin bill “is a onetime jobs fund, just like the money distributed under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”
“It’s a trick in one sense, because it doesn’t solve the real problem,” which is states’ lack of fiscal responsibility, she said. “It just puts a band-aid on it.”
Harkin introduced his bill in April. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) introduced a similar measure in the House in March.
Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.