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On Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried to publicly shore-up support for the $23 billion “Education Jobs Fund” being considered by Congress. Flanked by union heads Dennis Van Roekel (President, National Education Association) and Randi Weingarten (President, American Federation of Teachers) and Representatives Dave Obey (D-WI) and George Miller (D-CA), Secretary Duncan pleaded for additional taxpayers dollars:

School boards and state legislatures are finalizing their education budgets for the upcoming school year and many face tough choices about whether to retain teachers and continue programs that are vital to their ability to provide a world-class education for their students. We must act quickly and responsibly to provide schools the resources they need so they don’t have to make choices that would not be in the best interests of their students and teachers.

But the Washington Post today editorializes against Congress’ plans for another public education bailout, suggesting that the doom-and-gloom picture painted by the administration is overblown:

The unions predict layoffs could go as high as 300,000. It’s hard to imagine losing that many teachers without some damage to learning.

But that many teachers almost certainly are not going to lose their jobs. For technical reasons, school districts must send notices in the spring to more teachers than they actually expect to let go in the fall. What’s more, the unions’ 300,000 estimate includes not only classroom teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade but also support staff and college professors. The bill would distribute money to states according to their population, not expected layoffs; states where no layoffs are imminent would get checks anyway, and the majority of states would receive more than they could possibly need to avoid layoffs. The Senate version of the bill permits them to spend the excess on other things.

The Post hits the nail on the head. For the past several decades, states have acted like a hungry child at an all-you-can-eat buffet. When the economy was good and state revenues were plush, school districts increased staff roles. And more recently, with eyes bigger than their stomachs, a seemingly endless buffet of federal funding has enabled states to continue bloating their staff roles even when state budgets needed trimming.  In particular, states piled up on non-teaching staff positions. In the mid-20th century for example, public schools employed about 2 teachers for every non-teacher on their rolls; today, only half of those people employed by public school districts are teachers.

But the billions in additional taxpayer dollars the administration seeks will continue to support a decades-long hiring binge by states. From the 1997–98 school year to the 2006–07 school year, student enrollment in public schools increased 6.8 percent. Over the same time period, the number of teachers in the classroom increased 15.8 percent.

The Post suggests that, if intent on spending another $23 billion of taxpayer dollars on public education, Congress should press for long-term education reforms.

If the goal were to preserve the maximum number of good K-12 teachers at minimum cost, the bill would encourage states to lay off teachers according to ability, rather than seniority — as current rules, sacrosanct to unions, dictate… Many jobs could be saved if more teachers accepted wage and benefits restraint, as workers in other hard-pressed industries have done.

Last year, the Department of Education received an unprecedented $98 billion through the so-called stimulus. Although that money was supposed to span a two-year period, Congress and the Obama administration are already asking taxpayers for billions more to support unsustainable public education spending. Instead of coming back to taxpayers for another public sector bailout, states should work on cutting costs in areas that are long overdue for reform: age-old tenure practices, teacher compensation and pension reform. Not only would this prevent already overburdened taxpayers from incurring more debt, but it would put states on a path toward meaningful education reform.

Lindsey Burke is a Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation. Follow Lindsey Burke on Twitter: @lindseyburke03

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