Next week, members of the House of Representatives are expected to take the unusual step of interrupting their August recess to return to the Capitol to vote on a $26 billion economic stimulus package their Senate counterparts approved 61-39 earlier this week.
The long-awaited measure contains $10 billion (PDF) to underwrite jobs for teachers — among other crucial funding — and lawmakers want the money in place when fiscal year 2011 starts on Oct. 1.
Minnesota’s projected share: $168 million in “edujob” funds and $263 million in additional Medicaid dollars.
Pro-rated by Minnesota’s average teacher salary and benefits (59,000 a year), the education funds could hire — or retain — about 2,800 educators. In addition, proponents say that by shoring up states’ budgets, the Medicaid funds could end up saving thousands of other public-sector jobs.
“Ensuring that Minnesota can maintain our education and health care standards during these tough economic times is imperative,” said Al Franken, a member of the Senate committee that crafted the bill. “The vote in the Senate…clears the way for the jobs bill to save thousands of education jobs and help prevent further cuts to important programs like Medical Assistance.”
So, does it sound like the cavalry’s coming?
“If they are, it’s to bury the dead,” quipped Dennis Carlson, superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district.
“When Minnesota got $500 million last year as part of the stimulus package, [schools] got nothing,” said Carlson. “There was no benefit to us except to stave off bigger cuts.”
Education policymakers have no hard statewide numbers, but estimates are that in each of the last two years, about 2,000 Minnesota teachers have lost their jobs.
During that time, Anoka-Hennepin laid off nearly 500, and St. Paul Public Schools, the state’s second-biggest district, last year shed 100 teachers.
Like many other states, Minnesota has used past infusions of stimulus dollars to divert funding from one program to another in an attempt to balance the budget, which has a projected shortfall of $7 billion. States face a cumulative budget gap of $62 billion for the current fiscal year.
School administrators and Minnesota Department of Education officials have yet to see the fine print, but news reports say lawmakers have tried to make sure money is actually used to underwrite jobs. The bill specifies that the money is to be used for school salaries, benefits, and support services. Assuming they see the money, districts are free to use it to prevent layoffs, recall teachers they were forced to let go or hire new ones.
“I don’t want to minimize it, but from the school districts’ perspective, this is not new money coming in,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. “It’s a help, clearly. It’s going to help eliminate some dire cuts. But on the other hand, I don’t want people to get their hopes up.”
Indeed, managing expectations is very much on Carlson’s mind. If the state were to simply hand Anoka-Hennepin its share of the “edujobs” money, the district would receive about $8 million, by his estimate. “It’s a drop in the bucket.”
“The cliff that we’re facing is huge,” he said. “We’re the largest employer in Anoka County. The economic ripple over the next three years is huge.”
The one-time funding won’t address mounting structural budget problems, Carlson and others noted. Over the next three years, Anoka-Hennepin needs to cut $100 million, or 25 percent of its budget. Stimulus notwithstanding, that probably means laying off 500 to 700 teachers.
How will Carlson explain the layoffs to district staff and families who wonder how class sizes can be so big and services so bare-bones despite the federal aid?
“It’s unprecedented. I’ve been in public education for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “All of this occupies 100 percent of my thoughts.”
Still, it bears repeating: Things would be worse without the stimulus money.
“When you look at the fiscal crisis, anything we can get eases things not only for K-12 but for the state’s finances in general,” said Grace Keliher, director of governmental relations for the Minnesota School Boards Association. Depending on the final details, the existence of the funding might help school boards and unions in contract negotiations, which have been especially fraught in the last couple of years.
“Every teaching job that is saved will help our schools improve and help our children learn,” said Paul Mueller, vice president of Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers union. “We all know that keeping class sizes manageable is key to effective teaching and quality learning.”
Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, can see less tangible benefits for the profession of teaching. “There is a short-term gain and a long-term gain to this ‘edujobs’ bill,” she said. “The long-term gain is that this could help send the signal that teaching is still an occupation worth going into.”
And the short-term gain? She’s a little more cynical about that.
“We don’t want to find ourselves in a worse dilemma than we are now,” said Ricker. “But we’ll celebrate when the money comes and we are able to get those teachers back in the classroom.”
Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.