05/12/2010 05:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Saving Our Public Schools

I've been crisscrossing the country recently, witnessing some of the toughest cuts to public education in my lifetime. I've visited school systems that, earlier in the recession, slashed "extras" like academic enrichment and after-school programs, so now they're cutting into bone--hundreds of thousands of teachers and other school staff, as well as academic offerings. It's not that these schools will educate fewer children, with fewer challenges, or that students won't need the personnel and programs that will be cut. The needs will be there--they just won't be met.

The number of educators receiving pink slips is expected to hit the 300,000 mark by the end of this school year. That's the same size as the entire population of Toledo, Ohio, or Pittsburgh. But there's a way out of this mess, so next school year can start off well. Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress in a much-needed attempt to swiftly provide funds to states and school districts in time to avert this impending educational and economic disaster.

The legislation isn't a long-term solution, but if Congress acts quickly, funds can get to states and school districts, which are finishing their fall budgets now, in time to avert devastating consequences, like huge class sizes and an end to important offerings such as music, art, Advanced Placement courses, summer school and programs for students who fall behind. School districts now face terrible choices--not just whether to cut, but which students will be shortchanged.

To get this legislation passed quickly, we need to fight off attempts to load it up with controversial amendments. These attempts will drag out or even halt what absolutely must be a speedy response to safeguard children's education. Real reform isn't implemented in a few months--which is how soon this money needs to flow to prevent tragic consequences for students and their schools. This bill should be about one thing--averting draconian cuts that will damage our kids' education. These other items could be considered more appropriately and thoughtfully in separate legislation.

Those of us who regularly get outside the Beltway and visit public schools see firsthand the effects of the economic downturn on students and schools. Some have labeled us "anti-reform" for suggesting that education reform should not be mixed into emergency economic legislation. It is simply ludicrous to brand those of us who visit schools and witness the threats posed by imminent budget cuts as "defenders of the status quo," just because we know this bill must be passed quickly to have a real effect on children this September.

Does anyone in their right mind think any educator would defend the status quo as we know it? I'm talking about persistent underfunding, flavor-of-the week reforms, the wide range of societal problems that seep into the classrooms, students who come to school hungry or sick. I don't defend any of this, and neither do the educators I know.

There are times when we must move with all due haste, while other circumstances call for appropriate deliberation. The loss of 300,000 educators would have devastating, long-lasting consequences for millions of students. The economic effect of losing good, middle-class jobs with crucial societal benefits would destabilize hundreds of thousands of families--as well as the country's fragile economic recovery. We must act swiftly.

The AFT recently launched a "Pink Hearts, Not Pink Slips" national campaign to draw attention to these layoffs and the harm they will cause to our students and our schools and communities. It is our way to raise awareness about what school districts and colleges are facing because of the loss of state and local revenues, and the resulting cuts for next school year. We are encouraging as many people as possible to wear a pink heart button, and to get involved. The response so far has been inspiring--more than 400,000 pink heart buttons have been requested already.

We need everyone to get involved. Visit and sign the petition, print out a flier, and call your members of Congress to insist that they protect students in our public schools from these catastrophic cuts. By adding your name to the petition, you will help us reach the goal of 300,000 signatures, one for every educator who may receive a pink slip by the end of the year, some of whom may be teaching your children.