Our screwy budget priorities are contributing to an unprecedented decline in education jobs—and that's not good for the future of democracy.
Thanks to the recession the nation's school districts have seen their budgets slashed, leading to shorter school years, the elimination of vital programs, and the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of educators. According to a new report (PDF) from the Obama Administration, since June 2009 we've lost more than 300,000 education jobs. In the past year alone 77,100 education jobs disappeared.
Not all of the educators being laid off are teachers. By some estimates, the number of actual teachers is about half the total layoffs. But instructional assistants, librarians, and other personnel that have been pink slipped are just as vital to a high functioning school environment. A principal can't spend her time in classrooms observing teachers and offering them feedback if she's stuck in the school office doing work that laid-off office assistants used to do.
Every time a teacher loses her job, her students are divvied up into the rooms of the educators that survived the layoffs. The result is that kids are jam packed into classrooms. Leonie Haimson, the Executive Director of Class Size Matters says that in New York City, the "youngest students are suffering from the largest classes in 13 years, despite the fact that surveys show that class size reduction is the top priority of parents, year after year." You don't have to be a genius to understand that giving 35 students the same personal attention you'd give 20 or 25 students is tough for even the most skilled teachers.
We can't expect cash strapped state and local governments to fund schools with money they don't have, but our elected leaders at the state level and in Congress have the power to make smarter choices and pass budgets that funnel more money to schools. They're just choosing not to do it.
The report notes that the Republican Congress refused to pass President Obama's American Jobs Act which would've provided $25 billion to "prevent layoffs and support the hiring or re-hiring of hundreds of thousands of educators, including teachers, guidance counselors, classroom assistants, afterschool personnel, tutors, and literacy and math coaches." That would mean that instead of being stuck bagging groceries at Trader Joe's to make ends meet, teachers could get back into the classroom. In comparison, the budget passed by House Republicans this year approved cuts "that would eliminate funding for 38,000 teachers and aides" and "eliminate support for a further 27,000 special education teachers, aides, and other staff serving children with disabilities."
Instead of ensuring our schools are fully funded, our Congress chose to approve lucrative tax breaks for the 1 percent. Indeed, a recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies found that 26 of the 100 highest-paid corporate chief executives "took home more in CEO pay last year than their companies paid in federal income taxes." The cumulative tax breaks for those 26 individuals could have paid the salaries of an estimated 211,732 elementary-school teachers.
The report concludes that this "unprecedented decline in education jobs and teachers" will have "long-term consequences for not only those that have lost their jobs but for kids in classrooms across the country." When our Congress makes these kinds of choices and refuses to invest in schools and teachers, it's hard to comprehend exactly how America can adequately prepare students for either the workforce or participating in our democracy.