On Tuesday night, the American Jobs Act (AJA) died—the Senate voted 50-49 in favor of President Obama’s jobs bill, leaving it well short of the filibuster-proof majority it would have needed to pass. Individual parts of the bill may yet be voted into law, but it’s safe to say that none of them will involve large spending measures. That outcome will please Republicans and some centrist Democrats, but also an unlikely set of traditional Obama allies: education reformers.
What makes their opposition to the President’s jobs plan particularly surprising is that Obama had spent the past several weeks specifically praising the bill’s education provisions, including, most prominently, $30 billion to save teacher jobs. According to the administration, absent that money, 280,000 teachers and school staff across the country will be out of work next September, doubling the total number lost since 2008.
There’s little doubt that money would have made for effective stimulus, especially as schools face bigger budget gaps this year than last. But education reformers question how much it would have benefited school districts, or their students: They suggest that by saving teacher jobs in the short-term, the bill would leave schools no better off when the $30 billion ran out. As prominent American Enterprise Institute education expert Rick Hess wrote after the plan was announced last month, “This is merely another push to kick the can down the road on hard but important choices, meaning schools and districts will just delay the day of reckoning.” Hess has a point: Big spending on short-term job retention misuses money that could be used to spur reform, or put school budgets on more sustainable footing.
By actively letting teachers go and increasing average class size, for example, districts could spend the savings on teacher training programs, or to pay better teachers more. “As a parent, you’re better off with 28, 30, or maybe even more kids and a great teacher, than 24 or 22 and a mediocre one,” wrote Time columnist and reform champion Andrew Rotherham earlier this year. Karen Hawley Miles, whose Massachusetts firm Education Resource Strategies helps districts better allocate funding, agrees. “We would always make the choice to raise class size a tiny bit, versus taking dollars away from longer term investment,” she told me.
Reformers have long touted class-size inflation as a non-zero-sum way to close education budget gaps. Bigger classes not only save money, but they seem to have little effect on student performance. While 50-person classes may be unmanageable, there’s growing consensus that little bumps in class size aren’t likely to affect student achievement. Reform advocates point to research (here, here, here) that finds small class size only has a measurable effect in the early grades, or for students with disabilities and language problems. (Pro-union forces counter by citing the work of economists and education scholars who have demonstrated that students in smaller class sizes get better grades and better jobs.) The jury is still out on the precise effect of class size on student performance, but as the recession forces states and school districts to cut their budgets, there’s an argument to be made that restocking teacher ranks while eliminating school programming, materials, or entire school days, is misguided.
Still, some districts have chosen to make radical cuts in order to preserve current class sizes. The 42,000-student district of Marion County, Florida, for instance, will start using four-day school weeks in September 2012, in large part because Florida has a constitutional amendment capping class size at 25 for high-schoolers, and less for younger students. Unable to fire teachers, they’re lopping off hundreds of classroom hours. In California, which also has a maximum class size ceiling for early grades, schools will be permitted to eliminate up to a week of classes this year. Nationally, 17 percent of school districts anticipated adopting four-day weeks this year, according to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators.
The stop-gap nature of the bill leads to another salient reformer complaint: By focusing on saving jobs, rather than jobs and reform, the AJA is treating public schools like any other employer. “We really need to get out of this mentality in this country that people look at public schools as if they are a jobs program,” Jason Delisle, the director of the New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project, told me. At stake, in other words, are not just the jobs of the teachers, but eventually, those of the students. Unlike Race to the Top and the President’s recent No Child Left Behind waiver plan, funds that would go to public schools are not conditional on adoption of mandates like “college and career-ready standards” for students. As Charles Barone, the federal policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, told me, the plan is simply “passing the buck” by filling budget holes, rather than designating some of the funds for forward-thinking investments, like better training for math and science or debt forgiveness for college students.
While education reformers have raised particular objections to the AJA, their overall complaint is not new: For the past several years, stimulus measures have saved over 300,000 educator jobs while neglecting to tackle issues that have exacerbated school budget problems, like the widespread practice of linking seniority and advanced degrees to high salaries. States received $40 billion through the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) solely to supplement education budget shortfalls and $10 billion more to retain staff through the 2010 Education Jobs Fund. Though ARRA money was loosely contingent on adopting reforms, a study by Bellwether Education Partners found that most school districts used their ARRA money “simply to maintain their current staff, programs, and funding levels.” The $10 billion Education Jobs Fund was used only to pay salaries.
Hence the “here we go again” chorus from the reform lobby after the AJA was announced. When the ARRA and Education Jobs money runs out at the end of the 2012 school year it will have been somewhat squandered, as most of it went to retain teachers and staff who will likely lose their jobs anyways. AJA too, if it were to pass, would only temporarily save jobs.
Regardless of the fate of the AJA, the teacher jobs proposal itself says something about the White House’s priorities. Last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the case that states’ looming budgetary cliffs would in fact provide a unique opportunity for reform; schools could thin teacher ranks and invest their money more sustainably. But the latest round of proposed education stimulus indicates that the administration—no doubt influenced by a stagnant employment rate and an increasingly fraught relationship with teacher unions—doesn’t always put its money where its mouth is.
Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.