WASHINGTON --The president's reported $300 billion plan to resuscitate a stagnant job market remains in a fairly vague form, one day before the president is set to discuss it in an address to a joint session of Congress. But sources outside of the administration are hopeful about one component: money that would be spent to rehire or retrain teachers and repair failing school systems.
Several Democratic sources on and off Capitol Hill told The Huffington Post on Tuesday night that the president would discuss those funds in his speech. How much he will focus on them remains unclear, and there is general concern that the amount of money he will propose allotting won't meet the need. The White House has steadfastly refused to comment on the president's plan for jobs, save to stress that it will be paid for in full and include objectives that both Republicans and Democrats can agree to.
Details began to emerge on Tuesday evening when the Associated Press reported that Obama would call for "public work projects, such as school construction," while the Los Angeles Times reported that the speech would push for "job training for the unemployed and a program to prevent teacher layoffs.”
Advocates for these programs insist that they resemble a case of smart politics and even smarter policy merging. For parents recently dropping their kids off for their first days of school, a call to lower class size and repair facilities will be alluring. And it's not as if the need for these changes isn't there.
State and local governments, facing budget shortfalls, have turned to school systems to make up the difference. Only three states increased funding for education in FY 2012 -- the rest cut it by millions. California, in a particularly alarming example, laid off an estimated 19,000 teachers as of this spring because of a $27 billion budget shortfall. Sending money to states of municipalities for the direct purposes of teacher retention or rehiring will curtail that trend, put teachers to work and generate a solid amount of economic activity, advocates say.
The refurbishing of schools could have an even larger economic multiplier effect. Currently there is an estimated $270 billion to $500 billion backlog in school maintenance and repair projects nationwide. A droplet of federal spending would be consumed quickly, putting construction workers to work in a needy sector.
Sources familiar with White House deliberations have said that advisers to the administration are weighing the merits of the Fix America's Schools Today (FAST) program, which would fund the maintenance and repair of public schools. The distinction between school construction and repair is an important one. The former would involve enhanced federal assistance and longer-term investment. Repair would have lower capital costs and less of a federal imprint. Both are needed. But political advisers see repair as a far easier sell for a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Who will get the money and how much will be spent also matters. Jared Bernstein, the former chief economist to the vice president and a supporter of FAST, told The Huffington Post that, theoretically, money could be sent to either the hundred most needy school districts or even the hundred largest.
"It's a smart infrastructure program that is fast-acting and labor intensive," he said, adding that "It fits the criteria" of a good bang for the buck.
Advocates for FAST have called for approximately $50 billion in upfront spending, with the hope that early investment would beget future ones as neighboring school districts petition their members of Congress for money of their own. The Associated Press, however, reported that the "White House proposal is expected to be smaller" than that figure.
UPDATE: 12:05 p.m. -- The Huffington Post's Joy Resmovits reports that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he is "very, very confident that ... education will be prominent" in Obama's jobs speech.
"It's something he fundamentally believes in," Duncan said, though he would not specify exactly what the administration had in store in terms of policy proposals or funding requests.
Speaking to reporters on his back-to-school bus tour, the education secretary did argue that "tens of billions of dollars" are necessary for the repair of school buildings. "There's tremendous need in rural, suburban areas," Duncan said. "When times are tough, folks defer capital expenses."
Duncan did offer a hard number for how much money might be needed in state or federal aid in order to reverse the tide of teacher layoffs across the country.
"It's a big number," he said. "A couple hundred thousands of teachers have lost their jobs."