Shovel-ready school repairs and EduJobs

As part of his jobs bill, President Obama proposes to spend $25 billion to modernize 35,000 schools and $30 billion to hire teachers. All children will attend “great schools,” the president promised in his speech to Congress.

Children learn more in up-to-date schools, argues Answer Sheet’s Valerie Strauss.

All other things being equal, it’s good to have science labs, air conditioning and a roof that doesn’t leak. But there are plenty of shiny, new, wired-up-the-wazoo schools where kids don’t learn, because facilities are way less important than a strong principal who maintains order, a team of competent, collaborating teachers, a coherent curriculum and committed parents.

Economic Policy Institute’s Ross Eisenbrey thinks school districts could hire construction workers immediately to fix up old schools.

Using existing school aid formulas, Congress could allocate money to the 100 biggest school districts and the state education agencies to put people to work within a matter of weeks. Before winter hits, old, thermally inefficient windows could be replaced, insulation could be added to roofs, old boilers could be swapped out, and tens of thousands of construction workers could be back on the job. By next summer, hundreds of thousands of workers could be employed making improvements to facilities in every school district.

We know that “shovel-ready” projects weren’t ready to hire. Schools may have deferred maintenance wish lists, but it takes time for districts to apply for funding, for the feds to decide who gets funding and then for schools to prioritize projects, seek bids from contractors (who will have to pay workers the inflated Davis-Bacon rate), decide on the winning bids and get the work done.

It’s no comfort that Obama’s model is Georgia Work$, which subsidizes temporary jobs for the long-term unemployed. Georgia Work$ doesn’t work, Eisenbrey writes. Only 12 people signed up for the faltering program in August, adds Reuters.

The plan to rehire or hire teachers is a golden oldie.

Another dose of federal funding will let districts put off dealing with the overspending of the bubble years, writes Rick Hess.

I could repeat what I wrote last year about “Edujobs,” explaining how it undercuts supes, school boards, and unions leaders who are trying to rationalize outlays and benefits. I could repeat some of the concerns I raised when ARRA was being debated in spring 2009. I could explain how this is merely another push to kick the can down the road on hard but important choices, meaning schools and districts will just delay the day of reckoning, while locking in another year of problematic benefit obligations. I could point out that it means treating schools as a jobs bank rather than organizations that stand to benefit from streamlining (hard for me to think of anything less likely to breed professional respect for teachers than treating schools as a make-work jobs program).

In Stimulus I, districts used EduJobs money to protect fringe benefits and administrative staff while laying off teachers in the arts and other non-core subjects, writes Chris Tessone on Flypaper, citing a Center on Education Policy survey. “Funds for school modernization are nice,” he adds, but not likely to have much impact.

Edujobs: Harmful, not just wasteful

Spending $10 billion on edujobs isn’t just a waste of money, writes Rick Hess. It’s “flat-out bad for K-12 schooling.”

“For more than a half century, we’ve spent more dollars on K-12 schooling each year than we did the year before,” Nobody’s been forced to “reexamine old priorities, to create a leaner culture focused on productivity and performance, and to increase the likelihood that new dollars will be spent smarter.”

In my experience, the majority of districts are careless about deploying talent, undisciplined at the negotiating table, lax about pursuing operational efficiencies, and generally in need of a severe belt-tightening. This is not just about making sure resources are better used. It’s also about the lethargy that takes root in bloated bureaucracies, and how leaner, efficiency-hungry organizations create an environment that attracts and energizes talent.

Two years of education bailouts have subsidized the status quo and made it hard for school leaders to set priorities, Hess argues.

Union leaders will make no concessions on salaries, benefits or pensions if they think the bailout drawer might be open.

If we can’t change now, he argues, we never will.

The Education Department has rushed the edujobs application form, as promised. State can apply now for the money.

Poor examples

To argue for $10 billion in education aid, President Obama brought two laid-off teachers to the White House. Both Shannon Lewis, a special education teacher in West Virginia, and Rachel Martin, an Illinois kindergarten teacher, were laid off because of declining enrollment, not funding cuts.

Martin is an “excellent, excellent” teacher who was laid off because enrollments had dropped and she was lowest in seniority, said Matteson School District 162 Superintendent Blondean Davis. Davis offered Martin her old job back the day after she returned from Washington, saying enrollment is back up.

Lewis was laid off by her own mother, who’s the county superintendent, because there are fewer students in the district.

West Virginia has not been forced to lay off  or furlough any teachers or other state employees, reports the Charleston Daily Mail.  Last year, West Virginia cut state education funding, filled the gap with federal dollars and used the savings for other government needs. That’s likely to happen again this year.

There must be two teachers in this country who were laid off because of funding cuts. I know California’s got plenty. You’d think Obama’s people could have found them.

Obama signs edujobs bill

President Obama has signed a bill giving $10 billion to fund an estimated 160,000 education jobs, reports Education Week. The bill doesn’t require districts to use teacher effectiveness to decide on layoffs or hiring, as reformers had wanted.

To fund the bill, Congress cut nearly $12 billion cut from the food stamp program.

The new law also takes aim at some education programs, including a $10.7 million cut to Ready to Teach, which finances telecommunications-based professional-development programs for educators and educational videos; an $82 million cut to student financial-aid administration; and a $50 million cut to Striving Readers, which underwrites adolescent-literacy programs.

Literacy and high school advocates, while supporting the effort to save jobs, were angered that the reading program was targeted.

While some school districts are planning to rehire laid-off teachers, others are expected to use the funds to prevent future layoffs.

The return of edujobs

Edujobs — $10 billion to prevent teacher layoffs — has passed the Senate; the House will return from recess to vote on it.

The bill is financed, in part, by cutting food stamps for poor families by $516 a year  per family, notes Flypaper. (Food stamp funding, expanded as part of the stimulus, will be cut in 2014 instead of 2015.)

Hiring people with one-time funds is now defined as “courage” by the Education Department, writes Rick Hess. During a June webinar, Maura Policelli, ED’s senior advisor for external affairs, told listeners to spend stimulus funds to keep teachers on the payroll. She said, “And that does require some courage because it does involve the possible risk of investing in staff that you may not be able to retain in the 2011-12 school year.”  Hess writes:

I used to think that courageous leaders made tough decisions to identify waste, streamline budgets, and plan ahead.

What happens next year?

Save teachers or reforms?

Last week, House Democrats led by Rep. David Obey cut $800 million from Race to the Top, charter school funding and the Teacher Incentive Fund to help pay for a $10 billion education jobs amendment to a military appropriations bill. If the Senate goes along, President Obama has threatened to veto the bill. National Journal’s Education Experts discuss saving teachers’ jobs vs. saving education reforms.

Of $100 billion in education stimulus money last year, 96 percent went to support the status quo, writes Sandy Kress, a former education adviser to President George W. Bush. Most was used to save teachers’ jobs.

There is NO proof that education has been improved by all the spending.

And, yet the forces of the status quo now want their hands on the few dollars allocated to reform, arguing that the congressionally approved reforms are “bad” reforms and that they are “unproven.” And what do they want to do with the few dollars allocated for reform? “Pray and spray” them, as the House appropriations bill would do. Any proof of the efficacy of that practice? No. None. Zero. Nada.

If the reforms “lead to sophisticated evaluation systems,” we’ll be able to use teacher performance rather than seniority in the future, writes Ted Hershberg, a public policy and history professor and director of Operation Public Education at the University of Pennsylvania. He’d like to see jobs and reform, but puts reform first.

Those who want to fund education jobs seem eager to take every last dollar from Arne Duncan’s reform programs.

End 'last hired, first fired' to save jobs

To help more teachers keep their jobs and close the achievement gap, the $23 Billion “Keep Our Educators Working Act” should end “last hired, first fired” policies, argues Education Trust. In addition, Congress should close a loophole that would let states use the money to balance state budgets rather than retaining teachers.

. . . when school districts are forced to focus solely on teachers with the fewest years of experience—the ones who are paid the least—administrators have to eliminate more jobs to achieve the same dollar savings. In many districts, that can mean pushing out energetic veterans who have worked for four, five, or even six years.

To cut salary expenditures by 10 percent, districts would have to cut 875,000 public school jobs using seniority layoffs, estimates the Center on Reinventing Public Education.  “Nearly a quarter-million of those lost jobs could be saved by using seniority-neutral policies that take into account employee effectiveness,” according to CRPE.

As many districts announce teacher layoffs, the opposition to seniority-based layoffs is growing. But a New York bill to give principals discretion in laying off teachers has “little traction,” writes Marcus Winters in City Journal.