WASHINGTON — Apparently, teachers aren’t worth saving.
That’s the cold political calculation that has taken hold in the halls of Congress, where a last-ditch effort to funnel extra education money to the states isn’t getting much traction. Members of Congress are focused on saving their own jobs, and they fear giving teachers a lifeline could prove costly in the mid-term elections.
The White House and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been lobbying for an additional $23 billion in aid to states, which would be used to prevent the layoffs of as many as 300,000 teachers nationwide — including thousands in Georgia. Duncan has called the layoffs, which would hit schools harder than at any time since the Great Depression, an “education catastrophe.”
The teachers’ pink slips have already roiled the Georgia governor’s race, where a forum that featured three of the Democratic candidates last week was dominated by criticism of the cuts, according to the Savannah Morning News. Former Gov. Roy Barnes, who wants his old job back, vowed to stop the teacher reductions.
The money squeeze has also gutted an educational reform that Georgia introduced a decade ago: smaller class sizes. A state rule had limited k-3 classes to no more than 23 students, while grades 4-8 were limited to 28. But with the severe drop-off in funds, the state Board of Education voted on Monday to allow bigger classes, which inevitably means each child gets less attention.
Still, Duncan’s proposal for more education money has run into significant resistance from deficit-weary Democrats, as well as from just-say-no Republicans. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said school systems have hired too many administrators and staff (other than teachers), a model he called “unsustainable.”
It’s too bad that Congress’ newfound fiscal austerity is so rigid than even teachers can’t be saved. Already, American school children post lower scores on standardized tests than kids from a number of other countries; U.S. businesses clamor to hire foreign graduates in engineering and the sciences; and the U.S. has fallen from its perch as number one in college completion. How can the United States expect to maintain its economic competitiveness if it takes a huge step backwards with its public schools?
Most business owners understand the need to make costly investments in order to prepare their enterprises for the future. Without worker training, technology and infrastructure, they’d see little — if any — growth. American kids need that investment, too, or they won’t be ready for a future of global competition.
The layoffs could set back the Obama administration’s highly touted efforts to bring more teacher accountability to classrooms. Most school districts will use seniority to make decisions about cutting teachers — leaving little room to evaluate classroom performance. That means that bright and enthusiastic young teachers — who might hold great promise as classroom stars — are likely to be cut.
If preparing American kids to face the future isn’t a good enough reason for Congress to shore up the teaching profession, maybe this is: Why allow middle-class professionals to lose their jobs just as the economy seems to be finding its footing? While Republicans may be happy to run in era of widespread joblessness which they get blame on their opponents, Democrats, the majority party, ought to be doing everything possible to bring unemployment numbers down.
And it that isn’t a good enough reason, there’s this: Teachers vote. Just ask Barnes, who was defeated after one term by the little-known Sonny Perdue, largely because Barnes had angered teachers. Now, Barnes is doing everything possible to court them, pledging to find more money for education by suspending all tax exemptions carved out during Perdue’s business-coddling tenure.
Those same teachers will be voting in Congressional elections. Incumbents who don’t think education is a priority risk both a short-term political backlash and long-term educational mediocrity.