Short term, Congress’ ‘edujobs’ funding package could ‘save’ or hire 2,800 Minnesota educators

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 urgency?

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.

Dennis Carlson
Dennis Carlson

“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.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/06/2010 - 04:59 pm.

    I guess those political contributions are paying off. Give more money to the Dems so they can give more money to the union. And the cycle continues.

    “Comprehensive education reform” is needed. With reform, maybe our kids can have the same type of education that B. Obama enjoyed and his kids currently enjoy.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/06/2010 - 05:59 pm.

    Eh, when your already $14T in the hole, what’s aanother few $bil…

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/07/2010 - 09:25 am.

    Sounds like some people could use some education 😉

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/07/2010 - 11:08 am.

    Ron–
    Note that the Obama kids’ teachers earn a lot more than public school teachers, and that their classes are considerable smaller (means hiring a lot more teachers).
    To give ‘our’ kids the same kind of education that the Obama kids get means massive increases in funding to education; including hiring at least twice as many teachers.
    And of course, since private schools have to mandate to handle special needs students (in fact, they have a much more homogeneous student population), that’s an additional cost factor to be added in.
    And then factor in the cost of a larger number of smaller buildings….

  5. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 08/07/2010 - 11:49 am.

    What can you say other than craptastic

  6. Submitted by Beth Dhennin on 08/07/2010 - 01:49 pm.

    Obviously #’s 1 and 2 do NOT have children currently in public schools – where class-sizes truly will, and do impact the quality of their learning!
    I am particularly seriously worried about those children who are either at the top – or the bottom of the class; those who will be most impacted by, for example, English classes with 34 – 38 students! Having taught for more than thirty years (mostly children with special needs – often accomplished in mainstream classes), I have seen first hand the ramification of lack of teacher-time…
    Ultimately, perhaps Dr. Carlson’s caution about the effects on the ECONOMY of an area by inadequate public schools will somehow finally percolate into the brains of the fiscal conservatives. How tragic that it takes the collapsing of an educational system to reach them!

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/07/2010 - 03:26 pm.

    Ron G — Without unions, American workers would still be toiling in sweatshops at starvation wages, without any protection from unsafe conditions or from firing without cause. The Age of McKinley, you could say, with working conditions like those described in “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair or those we see in the mines where miners regularly die from accidents that shouldn’t have happened.

    As a nation, we used to value work and workers, but over the past 30 years or so, anti-worker types have conducted an anti-union campaign with propaganda AND with “labor relations” experts who travel the country telling corporations how to prevent or kill their unions. The percentage of workers in unions has dropped significantly, as have wages.

    This is no way to build a strong workforce or a strong and healthy economy.

  8. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/08/2010 - 07:45 am.

    Those who deny that “big education” is a political special interest group of the dems need the education.

    Always remeber, there will never be enough money to satisfy one of the largest special interest groups in the county, big education. That is why they give the money and get the money. That is why they get the “bail-out’s” along with the auto unions and wall street.

    Beth, have you watched a political ad in the past decade?

  9. Submitted by Rebecca Shipman on 08/08/2010 - 07:52 am.

    It’s a stopgap measure, but we desperately need stopgap measures. Otherwise, in the name of trying to balance budgets we’ll mortgage our future. More than ever, education is vital to US competitiveness, and I would hate to have the legacy of the excesses of the last 10 years be a lost generation of kids. We also need to revamp costs of higher ed, but for now, keeping our education infrastructure in place can help limit the impact on today’s generation of kids.

    Any attempt to balance budgets (a worthy goal) can’t happen until the economy recovers, or it will just throw us into recession. So we should take the money and be grateful.

  10. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/08/2010 - 09:30 am.

    Bernice–
    It’s supply and demand; if the supply of labor exceeds the demand for it, then the price of labor goes down; that’s the free market at work.
    That’s why over the last year US production increased by 6%, while jobs increased by 2.4% (less than the increase in the size of the labor market).
    This will drive down the price of labor and increase corporate profits.

  11. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/08/2010 - 04:48 pm.

    Some folks are unwilling to identify any actual areas of the budget they’d be willing to cut in order to reach their goal of reducing the deficit. But I am fairly confident that if you asked folks “should we reduce the budget deficit by firing 2,800 public-school teachers?”, the answer would be even more negative than usual.

    This is not an optimal way to fund our education system. It isn’t going to be any easier to pay off the national debt in 2030 if America’s workforce has inferior math and science skills because we fired our teachers back in 2010 to save money.

    If Minnesota were a top-tier educational model with small class sizes and fabulous electives in every high school, that’s be one thing. But Minnesota standards are not what they used to be and we seem to be perfectly willing to fall further behind.

    If we’re going to take all our children’s money and spend it on foreign adventures and health care, we should at least given them the tools to make more money.

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