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The economic-stimulus package that Congress passed two years ago preserved hundreds of thousands of jobs in the nation’s public schools but, with the economy still sputtering, the future of many of those positions remains in jeopardy.

education stimulus

In all, the nearly $100 billion shot-in-the-arm funded 367,524 education-related jobs during the 2009-10 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Though this tally includes jobs saved and created, observers say states and school districts did not go on a hiring spree with their stimulus funds. Instead, they hunkered down to prevent mass layoffs and to maintain the status quo—no small feat, given the historic recession and the soaring budget deficits that resulted.

“We saved 350,000 jobs. How often do you get to do that in life?” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview. “I think it helped to stave off a total disaster.”

While the number of jobs saved may seem eye-popping, the stimulus funding didn’t seem like a windfall to many school districts. That’s because many recession-battered states, desperate to balance their budgets, cut education funding and spent the savings on other public services. They then used federal stimulus money to back-fill those budgetary holes for education. Congress attempted to bar such maneuvers but that provision of the stimulus bill was filled with so many loopholes that states generally could get around it.

In a report by the American Association of School Administrators last April, 87 percent of districts reported that they saw no net increase in funding despite the stimulus package.

A March 2010 report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell came to a similar conclusion: that stimulus funds largely subsidized the existing K-12 workforce because adding staff would have created a funding cliff when the money ran out.

And that is quickly happening.

Districts have less than one-quarter of their stimulus funds remaining, which means jobs for thousands of teachers, aides, janitors and consultants hang in the balance.

States must now figure out how to keep these education jobs on the payroll even as their own economies continue to struggle. Helping, at least temporarily, is an additional $10 billion Congress approved in August for educator jobs as part of a state bailout package called the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act.

Even so, this budget year, 13 states are making a combined $1 billion in unexpected midyear cuts to K-12 education, according to a November report by the National Association of State Budget Officials and the National Governors Association.

Nor does it get better next budget year, when nearly half of the states are expecting overall budget gaps. And in 2013, 17 states are still predicting shortfalls.

Michael Griffith, a fiscal analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks and analyzes state education policies, said it will take up to three years before states fully recover. “Even with stimulus money, districts had to make pretty large cuts,” he said. “The money prevented them from cutting muscle and bone.”

education stimulus

In Connecticut, the state budget is facing a $3.5 billion deficit and local school systems are still reeling from last summer’s painful budget cuts, which resulted in bigger class sizes, teacher layoffs and program cuts. While figuring out how to pay for reforms the state legislature mandated to compete for federal stimulus grants, local schools are also worried about what will happen this coming summer when the stimulus funds that have propped up their education budgets are exhausted. “If I’m a superintendent of schools, I’m sweating right now,” said Larry Cafero, a Republican leader in Connecticut’s House of Representatives.

Thanks in part to stimulus funding, most Pennsylvania school districts have weathered the recession with a lot of belt-tightening but few drastic cuts. The state estimates that 8,100 education jobs were saved.

But in 2011, things could get far worse. State funding will almost certainly be reduced, local revenues still have not rebounded and school boards are hesitant to hike taxes with unemployment still high. “We’re bracing ourselves,” said Lawrence Feinberg, a school board member in a relatively prosperous suburban Philadelphia school district.

For the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which were in the midst of developing and implementing a series of reforms when the economic stimulus was passed, the funding has saved about 200 teaching jobs each year. Without the money, Peter Camarda, executive director of budget development, management and operations for the district, said the layoffs “would have been very disruptive to education and would have taken the district off course.”

In energy-rich Alaska, which weathered the downturn better than other states, some districts used the stimulus as an opportunity to beef up programs. In Juneau, district leaders added literacy specialists and leaders, middle-school exploratory classes and drug prevention program staff. In all, ARRA funds paid for 10 existing staff positions and about six and a half new ones. But now the district faces a new round of tough choices as it stares down a $4 million hole in its $80 million budget.

Even though the stimulus saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, school districts still had to lay off teachers. Yet with all of this money came little action among school administrators and state policy leaders addressing fundamental problems in staffing and education finance.

Tim Daly, executive director of the New York City-based New Teacher Project, a teacher-training organization, lamented that there was little movement to change how teachers are laid off. Rather than getting rid of poorly performing teachers, he said, most districts are bound by union contracts to lay off the most recently hired teachers first.

The stimulus package “forestalled the conversation about how to redo the workforce with the least harm to kids,” Daly said. “We set a precedent that you don’t have to change the way you do layoffs in a financial crisis.”

But there are merits to protecting teachers with more seniority, according to the country’s two main teachers’ unions.

“With the end of the stimulus funding, we’re seeing efforts to pit one teacher against the other by trying to cut those with experience since they tend to earn more,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. Instead of focusing on how districts do layoffs, she said “let’s [improve teaching] by developing a fair and comprehensive teacher evaluation system, which would make
seniority-based layoffs moot.”

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said experienced teachers are valuable, and that “in no other profession is experience deemed a liability rather than an asset.”

To expect school districts to dramatically change how they do business in such a short timeframe may be unrealistic, said Karen Hawley Miles, executive director of Education Resource Strategies in Massachusetts, a nonprofit that works with large urban districts to improve student learning.

Still, she pointed to districts that are focusing on not just keeping more people in the classroom, but on retaining the right people—districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg, in North Carolina, which was able to conduct layoffs based in part on merit.

“But those who were able to really seize it [stimulus funding] as a transformational moment are in the minority,” she said. “Moving these behemoth organizations takes a long time.”

Michele McNeil is an assistant editor covering federal education policy at Education Week.

With contributions from Grace Merritt, Hartford (Conn.) Courant; Dan Hardy, Philadelphia Inquirer; Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Sarah Day, Juneau (Alaska) Empire.

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