Teacher Pink Slips May Be Latest Proof of Anti-Spending Pressure

Nobody likes the prospect of financially pressed school districts handing out thousands of pink slips to teachers, but Democrats' proposal for a $23 billion bailout attracted so many critics early on that it seemed doomed from the start, despite energetic lobbying by teachers' unions and congressional educational leaders.

With rising taxpayer distress over deficit spending, the idea of pushing through a $23 billion bailout for anyone—even to save an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 teacher jobs—met plenty of resistance from fiscal moderates and conservatives, including the Blue Dog Democrats, many of whom are facing reelection challenges this fall. When a decision was made late Thursday to cancel the House committee meeting called to put funding for the bill into a war-funding bill, the assumption on the Hill, a Republican staffer said, was that "a lot of the Democrats don't want to vote for it either."

There was also a leeriness about an apparent loophole that would allow states to use the money for things other than teachers' jobs, including balancing their budgets. Critics also argued that the growth in teachers during recent boom years had outstripped the growth of students, implying that school districts could afford to do some belt-tightening.

Meanwhile, education reformers, including the Education Trust and Democrats for Education Reform, launched an aggressive attack of their own. Rather than seeking a giveaway to school districts, these reformers want lawmakers to attach strings to the money that would push states to overhaul their layoff policies. Currently, most districts lay off teachers based on seniority. Many education reformers want the rules changed so layoff decisions are based on teacher effectiveness and merit. Without these changes, they say, districts will lose some of their best new teachers, particularly in some of the highest-need schools. "Almost every district has to follow seniority rules," says Charles Barone of DER. "If something isn't changed, these layoffs will have a disproportionate impact on high-minority/high-poverty schools."

Some key Republicans signaled that inclusion of the reformers' proposals would make the bill more palatable to them. "The broader concern is that the bill proposes spending money we don't have," says one Republican House staffer. "But the fact that there is no guarantee that the bill would save the jobs of the best teachers is a real concern."

Supporters of the bailout tried to win over skeptics by arguing that there wasn't time for states to make such dramatic changes in layoff polices this spring. Many legislatures have already dispersed, and most school districts have looming deadlines for informing teachers about their contract status for next year. "A lot of states have already put through their budgets," says one Democratic Senate staffer. "We don't have months to debate this. We have to do it now." Besides, she added, if states want to change their layoff policies on their own, there is nothing in the bill that would stop them.

Janet Bass of the American Federation of Teachers says that despite these obstacles, the unions plan to keep up the pressure for passage. "We will fight for it as long as we can," she says. "It's not dead."

She's right that there's a chance the proposal could be revived next week, but betting money as Congress prepared to leave town for the Memorial Day weekend was that there just aren't the votes to move it forward.