On National Teacher Day, Unions Rail Against School Cuts

Some 300,000 teachers and others might lose their jobs this year as administrators make difficult school cuts. One union launched a campaign on National Teacher Day to highlight the issue.

On Tuesday, which was National Teacher Day, teacher unions and lawmakers highlighted the grim future looming for some districts that are being forced to ax teachers – among other school cuts – in order to balance their budgets.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) launched a “Pink Hearts, Not Pink Slips” campaign designed to bring attention to the 300,000 teachers, school staff, and college faculty who it says are in danger of losing their jobs this year. The campaign supports legislation that would provide an additional $23 billion in federal money to help avert layoffs.

“The level and magnitude of these cuts are unsustainable,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten in a press conference Tuesday morning. “It’s lunacy to be making cuts of this magnitude as we’re working on education reform to help all students learn.”

Rep. George Miller (D) of California and Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa also spoke about the legislation they’ve introduced: The $23 billion “education jobs fund” would be modeled after the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, which was created last year with education stimulus money and helped many states with tough budget situations.

“Not since the Great Depression have our public schools faced the prospect of such massive layoffs,” Senator Harkin said. “This is not something we can fix in August, when the new school year begins. We have to head off this disaster now.”

But critics contend that the crisis is being exaggerated. In many cases, for instance, districts are required to notify teachers that they may lose their jobs, even if it is highly likely they will fire such large numbers. Also according to critics, more money is not the solution.

“The likelihood that our kids are going to thank us for running up another $23 billion on their tab so that we can avoid making responsible decisions is unlikely,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He quibbles with the notion that this is as dire an economic picture as many education advocates claim, noting that education hasn’t seen a year-over-year decline in spending in more than half a century.

Mr. Hess says he’d prefer to see the current economic situation – and the political cover it provides – used to help districts make tough decisions to become more efficient. Maybe, he says, districts could even renegotiate big budget expenses like pension and benefit packages.

“If we don’t use this opportunity to get our houses in order, if we just use it as an excuse to borrow more money, I’m not sure when we’ll ever actually take a look at which of our education spending is cost-effective and which is just congealed habit, he says.

Still, districts across the United States have been complaining that they made all the easy cuts long ago and the only options left are likely to be unpopular ones: bigger class sizes, the loss of athletic programs and other extracurriculars, and diminished programs like summer school or early-childhood education.

In a recent survey by the American Association of School Administrators, 48 percent of respondents reported budget cuts of 10 percent or less for the coming school year, and 30 percent foresaw cuts of 11 to 25 percent.

In California – one of hardest-hit states – actress Megan Fox recently filmed a short commentary highlighting the effect of the budget crisis on schools and the thousands of California teachers who have received pink slips. The film pokes fun at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), and Ms. Fox urges viewers to call or write the governor.