08/08/2010 05:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Teachers Are Slashed, the Children Pay

Tough times affect everyone, but inevitably children and the neediest are hit the hardest. While state coffers are shrinking, the number of children enrolled for the coming school year is not -- and neither is the extent of their educational needs. It is our nation's obligation to ensure that all our children have access to great public schools during good times and bad. This is a long-term investment in our kids' and country's future.

We can't "race to the top" if the bottom is falling out for school districts from coast to coast. The stakes are high and the situation is dire. For every layoff, for each day that's cut from a school week, for every course or program that's dropped, children are hurt.

  • In Philadelphia, many schools have closed their libraries, with the books kept behind iron gates, because librarian positions have been cut.
  • In Los Angeles, a week was scratched from the school calendar.
  • In Albuquerque, the local teachers union held a bake sale with "cutback" cookies, "furlough" fudge brownies and "corporate loophole" lollipops to help fill budget gaps that have increased class sizes and forced furlough days.
  • In Ohio, AP courses, music, art, foreign language programs and bus routes have been slashed, along with school counselor positions. In Broward County, Fla., art, music, physical education and library programs are on the chopping block.
  • In Chicago, 600 educators have been laid off, 900 more might receive the same fate after Labor Day, and bilingual education and foreign language programs have been cut.

And despite what research tells us about the importance of preschool, states are slashing pre-K programs because federal stimulus funds are running out.

Devastating budget cuts will jeopardize real educational progress that's being made in our public schools. Fortunately, Congress is taking steps to help states. In an extraordinary act demonstrating the seriousness of the problem, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called the U.S. House of Representatives back for a special session on Tuesday to vote on a Senate-passed $26 billion package that would provide $10 billion to prevent educator layoffs and $16 billion for Medicaid assistance to the states. It wouldn't provide a complete fix, but it would go far to avert the inevitable: larger class sizes, slashed courses and programs, shortened school days and weeks, and teacher layoffs.

I've crisscrossed the country, talking with teachers who have already been laid off or whose jobs are threatened. With tears in their eyes, they tell me that what upsets them the most is the impact on their students. They dread the thought of their kids walking into a classroom of 40 or more students; of school being closed one day a week; of the loss of AP classes, music and art courses, or programs that struggling kids need the most.

I spoke with a pregnant teacher who won't have health insurance when her child is born, but all she could talk about was the effect of layoffs on her school's students. I visited a school that will lose a third of its teachers because of the budget crisis. I met teachers everyone would want for their children but who are not going to be facing the excitement of a new school year. Their kids are their "special interest."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Pelosi have demonstrated true leadership on this legislation, while others wallow in demagoguery -- the last bastion of the just-say-no crowd. The House has passed a jobs bill in two other iterations; when it does so again on Tuesday, and the bill heads straight to the president's desk for his signature, the final tally will clearly show who is prepared to stand up for our kids and who is not.

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