Skip to content

Education: Hitting the Books

Federal Money’s Role in School Payrolls Becomes More Conspicuous

At the end of the last school year, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District laid off almost 650 teachers. As a result, class sizes ballooned to more than 50 students in some cases. Under pressure from parents, teachers and students, the CEO of the school district has recommended that the teachers be rehired, a move that would create an estimated $11 million deficit and require cuts elsewhere.

While the situation in Cleveland is noteworthy, it is by no means unique. In the past two years, more than 268,000 education jobs have been eliminated.

More than 70 percent of school districts experienced funding cuts in the 2010-11 school year. And while some used creative thinking to get more for their money — moving to a four-day school week or charging students for extracurricular activities — nearly every school that faced a budget shortfall cut jobs for teachers and other staff.

“Not only is that harmful to those laid-off individuals and their families, but it is harmful to local communities and the overall economy,” said Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an organization that lobbies for increased federal funding for education. “Students shouldn’t suffer from the elimination of important classes, libraries, after-school programs and unmanageable class sizes resulting from these layoffs.”

The Obama administration and the Democratic 111th Congress provided an unprecedented level of federal funding for education in an effort to stave off job losses — and protect teachers unions, an important Democratic constituency — but schools still face an uphill battle. With federal dollars from the 2009 stimulus bill and the 2010 state assistance legislation used up, the education sector is approaching a funding cliff.

“With money from the jobs fund being obligated and used, now we’re looking at the same thing again,” said Deborah Rigsby, director of federal legislation for the National School Boards Association. “The Education Jobs Fund has really helped to mitigate the layoffs of the school personnel that are needed in terms of ensuring the educational achievement of students.”

Education advocacy groups estimate that an additional 280,000 jobs for teachers, counselors, librarians, custodians and other staff will be cut this school year unless the federal government intervenes once again, an outcome made considerably less likely by the Republican takeover of the House in 2010.

The administration has already spent a massive amount of political clout to prevent any sort of funding cuts to education in the budget and debt ceiling negotiations, arguing that it’s vital to rebuilding the economy and remaining internationally competitive.

In fact, Obama’s 2012 budget request included a $4.5 billion increase for education over fiscal 2011 — one of the few domestic policy initiatives that wasn’t targeted for decreases in the rate of growth. And just last month, the president proposed $60 billion for education in his jobs bill, $30 billion that would directly prevent teacher layoffs, and another $30 billion for school modernization.

All that proposed new spending has been met with fierce criticism from conservatives, who argue that throwing more money at a broken education system does a disservice to students and taxpayers. The United States spends more on education than any other industrialized nation in the world, yet the latest international rankings place the country 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The combination of the opposition on policy grounds with the reluctance of newly empowered conservative Republicans to bail out state governments and protect the jobs of thousands of Democratic sympathizers in teachers’ unions makes passing such a jobs bill nearly impossible. Garnering extra dollars for education in the fiscal 2012 budget will be just as difficult, education lobbyists concede.

The Rise of Washington’s Involvement

The federal government didn’t begin contributing to non-college education — historically a local and state concern — in a consistent way until 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as part of his “War on Poverty.”

The law aimed to shrink the achievement gaps among student populations. With the same principle in mind, Congress passed a bill in 1975 that provides aid to disabled students, now known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Today, more than 38 percent of all discretionary funding for education goes to programs under these two laws, which target low-income and minority students and children with disabilities.

“Federal aid to education tends to be very level-oriented and goes towards children with disabilities, migrant children, immigrant children, children who don’t speak English,” said John F. Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, an independent advocacy group for public education. “Children at risk are the main focus.”

Appropriations for those programs grew rapidly from fiscal 2001 through 2004. Title I grants for low-income school districts have increased by $7.7 billion, or 88 percent, since 2001, according to the New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project.

Much of that came from the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus package, which funneled $140 billion over two years into new and existing education programs, and $10 billion in state aid to save teacher jobs in 2010, an unprecedented level of federal spending on education.

Despite the increase, most education funding is still provided by state and local governments. For elementary and secondary education, federal spending accounts for about 9 percent of total funding.

But that funding has a disproportionate effect on employment. A considerable portion of those federal dollars — some organizations estimate as much as 80 percent of funding for programs such as Title I — goes directly to paying teacher salaries. The stimulus dollars alone funded 347,000 jobs, mostly in education, according to the Department of Education.

“Federal money historically pays for jobs, and more recently it’s very specifically been used to try to prevent massive layoffs,” Packer said.

Because such a large proportion of federal education funding goes to districts with high percentages of low-income and minority students, cuts would affect those districts the most, unless states altered their spending priorities. 

“Most school districts with large numbers of poor children and children of color would be hurt,” Jennings said. “They would have fewer teachers. There would be less funding in those schools, and the education of those children would be of lesser quality.”

Running Out of Dollars

With roughly 60 percent to 80 percent of school funds dedicated to personnel, state and local budget cuts mean that job losses are inevitable. According to a study by the Center on Education Policy, 90 percent of districts said they expected to cut positions this school year, a sharp increase from the 68 percent of a year earlier.

The continuing decline in housing values has meant that property tax revenue, which makes up most local school funding, is also down. And dollars from the stimulus and teachers jobs fund are essentially all spent.

The education community calls this phenomenon a “triple threat,” emphasizing that depleted property taxes, shrinking local and state budgets, and dwindling federal funding make attempts by House Republicans to cut education that much more serious.

Federal funding affects low-income schools in ways other than just the hiring and firing of teachers. It helps increase teacher pay at schools that have few other incentives to offer, and makes it possible for underperforming school districts to recruit successful principals and school administrators. Federal dollars also help provide social services for children, including after-school tutors for those learning English, and for in-school counseling services.

In addition, the federal government supports programs to improve teacher quality and attract new teachers. In fiscal 2011, Congress appropriated $3.3 billion for these programs.

Federal assistance also helps create construction jobs through school modernization grants.

Advocates of an increased federal role in education naturally enough agree that Obama did the right thing by pumping billions of dollars into education. Now they want more. Stimulus assistance closed 32 percent of state shortfalls in 2010, but will cover just 20 percent of shortfalls in 2011, and less than 1 percent of shortfalls in 2012 as the aid phases out, according to the Center on Education Policy.

“The fiscal situation of most state governments hasn’t really changed in the past two years,” said Jason Delisle, director of the Federal Education Budget Project at the New America Foundation. “Revenues are starting to grow a bit, but they are still largely in a position they were in the past two years, and now the stimulus money is gone.”

Recent Stories

High-speed routes biggest winners in latest rail funding round

Appeals court upholds most of Trump gag order in DC case

Kevin Up — Congressional Hits and Misses

House GOP cites new Hunter Biden charges in impeachment push

Congress must protect our servicemembers by reauthorizing Section 702 

Photos of the week ending December 8, 2023