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The $23B "Keep Our Educators Working Act" Is No Education Jobs Fund

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School leaders across the country are bracing for cuts in the upcoming school year--cuts likely far deeper than those made during the past two. In fact, the American Association of School Administrators projects that 275,000 education jobs nationwide will be cut in 2010-11.

Federal help is needed, and it's needed urgently.

But in our rush to "do something" to avert job losses, Congress must ensure that our vehicle for action doesn't stall at the outset. As currently written, the recently introduced $23 billion "Keep Our Educators Working Act of 2010" (Edujobs) will leave far too many educators and students stranded on the road to economic recovery.

• Edujobs should help state and district leaders end "last-hired, first-fired" policies--policies that teachers themselves reject and exacerbate the number of people who lose their jobs during layoffs.

• Congress must close a loophole in the bill that would allow 49 states to shift their share of the funds to their general budgets, rather than actually save the teacher jobs for which the money is intended.

Earlier this week, eight national civil rights and education organizations sent a joint letter to Congress urging them to amend the bill to address these issues. Without those changes, Edujobs will do too little to protect these educators, their schools, and our kids.

Most school districts employ a mechanical "last-hired, first-fired" approach to layoffs, which means new teachers are always the first to go, regardless of how well they may do their jobs. But according to a 2009 report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington (CRPE), such policies actually result in far more people losing jobs than otherwise might be necessary.

Here's why: Teacher salaries increase with longevity, so when school districts lay off the teachers with the least experience--the ones who are paid the least--administrators must eliminate more jobs to achieve the same dollar savings. That can mean pushing out talented new teachers as well as veterans who have worked for four, five, or even six years. In fact, the district teachers of the year in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara, California were among those who received pink slips.

To reduce district salary expenditures by 10 percent, CRPE estimates that "last-hired, first-fired" policies will result in roughly 875,000 public school jobs lost nationwide. Nearly a quarter-million of those jobs could be saved by using seniority-neutral policies that take employee performance into account. Of those, about 125,000 would be classroom teachers.

That's why an increasing numbers of states and districts are rejecting these policies:

• Four states have laws that either prohibit the use of seniority in laying off workers or require other factors to be considered, too: Arizona, Louisiana, Maine, and Missouri, as well as Washington, D.C.

• Indianapolis recently amended its layoff policy to prohibit the use of seniority alone in making layoff decisions. And teachers in New York City are circulating a petition opposing last-hired, first-fired policies.

• Of the 100 representative school districts tracked by the National Council on Teacher Quality, 25 use factors other than or in addition to seniority to determine layoffs. In 16 of those districts, performance carries more weight than time on the job.

• The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Los Angeles Unified School District because its "last-hired, first-fired" policies disproportionately affect schools serving low-income students and students of color.

Congress should support these forward-looking state and local efforts to achieve fairer layoff policies that protect more teachers. But that alone won't be enough to ensure that this bill has the desired effect.

Edujobs also makes clear that the available funds are to be used only to retain existing school employees and hire new ones. In fact, the bill contains a lengthy prohibition against the use of its funding to restore, supplement, or establish a state reserve or rainy-day fund--that is, unless the state has a requirement to maintain a balanced budget.

As it turns out, all states except Vermont have such a requirement. So Vermont alone would be required to spend its portion of the $23 billion to keep educators on the job. The remaining 49 states could use these federal funds to fortify state coffers, even as they lay off thousands of teachers.

It's critical for the federal government to act on behalf of America's public schools. But, as written, Edujobs won't maximize the number of teachers jobs saved and could--in the end--be little more than TARP for state budgets.

These two important fixes could turn the Keep Our Educators Working Act into a powerful tool for protecting our schools and teachers. But without them, it is nothing more than a cruel and empty promise.