With all of the talk about the federal economic stimulus package and its specific education provisions, there seems to be a common belief that education funds (particularly those block grants and discretionary moneys going directly to the state) have little impact on employment (or unemployment) across the nation. For those not involved in K-12 education on a day-to-day basis, we just can’t see that school districts would look to lay off teachers in the middle of an academic year. After all, who has the vision of a classroom full of students, lacking a certified educator at the front of the room?
Unfortunately, it is an all-to-real reality. As states and districts face massive budget crises, personnel cuts are often the first thing to consider. After all, human resources make up more than 80 percent of our school operating costs. Between salaries, health benefits, and retirement costs, keeping a teacher in the classroom costs far more than the meager wages many of them take home every week. So cutting a teacher here or trimming another educator there can mean real savings for a school district in a financial pinch.
Case in point, California. By now, we’ve all heard about California’s dire financial situation. Virtually every program is faces the budgetary guillotine. State workers are being told to take unpaid leave. The state legislature even recently considered a California-wide ban on the purchase of all instructional materials (textbooks, software, etc.) for two years in the hopes of saving upwards of half a billion dollars a year (the ban was defeated at the end of the legislative session in November, but is likely to be revisited with the new legislature this year).
Last year, during better economic times, California’s public schools issued initial pink slips to 10,000 public school teachers, with nearly 5,000 of them ultimately losing their jobs. This year, with financial realities in the Golden State far worse than they were in the previous (the latest is an $11 billion shortfall for K-16 education), we have to expect the number of notifications and the number of layoffs to rise dramatically.
Fortunately, some are looking to throw a spotlight on this issue, reminding California residents that the fate of their school teachers is at risk. Using the power of the Internet, Stand Up for Our Schools has launched Pink Friday 2009, a collection of online tools, blogs, and discussion forums focused on March 13 — the deadline for California school districts to issue preliminary pink slips to educators. Check them out at www.pinkfriday09.org/
Even if you aren’t a California resident, Pink Friday is an endeavor worth a quick look. It reminds us that the economic stimulus package is about more than tax cuts, school construction, and even $300 million in “green” golf carts. It’s also about ensuring that our school districts have the funds to provide a high-quality education to all students. And that starts with teachers. We may not want to believe that educators will get caught in the middle of these budget fights, and that teacher layoffs could become a reality in far too many states and districts, but it is a grim truth. Shrinking state coffers mean layoffs of public sector employees, and that includes teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals (even those in our beloved neighborhood schools).
By this afternoon, we should know the full details of the economic stimulus package, including how much money is available to support teachers in the classroom and to provide school districts the needed financial resources to maintain their budgets and ensure that high-quality education and good teaching continues (particularly in those communities with the most at risk), even during such economic times. Without such an investment in teachers, do we really think the next generation of students will be up to the rigors and challenges of the next economic crisis?
This is not just an issue for current teachers working in today’s classrooms. This is a topic that everyone — every state and local policymaker, every business leader, every parent, and every taxpayer — should pay close attention to. When it comes to investing in our schools, priority number one has to be the teacher. Without effective instruction, state-of-the-art buildings, the latest technology, and the greatest of instructional strategies will have minimal impact.