Joelle Beck is one of roughly 17,000 teachers in the state of Illinois to be laid off before the next school year begins. Due to a $1.5 million deficit in her district, she and 25 other teachers will not be going back to class in the fall.
Beck's story is increasingly common. With more than a quarter of a million teachers across the country facing layoffs, the educational future of American students is increasingly uncertain.
"Our students will be struggling to keep their heads above water in classrooms of 30-plus students while one teacher attempts to meet the individual needs of each student and help them learn to their fullest potential," Beck said at a Capitol Hill press conference today. "A message is conveyed to our students that their education holds little value in the eyes of our government and that their future and their success is meaningless."
Teachers like Beck joined congressmen and teacher advocates today to support federal legislation to prevent the massive cuts.
"We can't shortchange kids and their education just as we're making inroads on genuine schools reforms that will transform public schools. The federal government didn't walk away from Wall Street, and it shouldn't walk away from our kids' public schools. Education should be considered too big to fail," said Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers.
Weingarten joined Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Rep. George Miller, D-California; and Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association in announcing the "Pink Hearts, Not Pink Slips" campaign to draw attention to the impending layoffs and rally support to avert the cuts. Harkin, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on education, has proposed legislation, the "Keep Our Educators Working Act," which would create a $23 billion education jobs fund to help states retain and hire teachers and other school staff members.
"This country is about to face a massive wave of layoffs in our schools and institutions of higher learning that could weaken our economic recovery and cause serious damage to our education system," Harkin said. "This bill is an investment in our kids, in our economy and in our future."
Teachers Face Layoffs as Stimulus Funding Shrinks
In addition to state budget shortfalls, stimulus funding for education is winding down. The Recovery Act, specifically the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF), has helped save upwards of 300,000 education jobs. Since the Recovery Act was enacted, the Education Department has provided roughly $100 billion to states. The Harkin bill would, in essence, be an extension of SFSF funding.
With a steep funding "cliff" imminent, states will likely be forced to make broader cuts. Massive layoffs of teachers are expected to have a dramatic impact on students: come next fall students may face larger class sizes, fewer after-school and summer programs, and the elimination of certain subjects -- such as art, music, or advanced placement classes.
The numbers are staggering. Before the start of the next school year Education Secretary Arne Duncan has estimated up to 300,000 teachers could be laid off. California alone has already sent out over 23,000 pink slips.
"The thing you must remember is that 300,000 adults leave those schools, there's not one less child there," Van Roekel said.
Several states are already taking drastic action to avert the impending layoffs. Some schools in Kansas have gone to a four-day school week. Hawaii began Friday furloughs earlier this year. Some schools in Iowa are reducing full-day kindergartens to half days and putting off buying new text books.
Other lawmakers, however, have questioned bailing out the schools.
"Our governor, a Democratic governor, said at the time of the stimulus funding two years ago that these are one-time funds; don't spend it on continuing operations," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, said at a congressional hearing last month. " I wonder from whose school children we're going to borrow this money, because we have a looming debt crisis in our country… We all want to help our children and help our schools, but that's a deep concern."
Education Secretary Arne Duncan supports an emergency education jobs bill, although he has stopped short of endorsing the Harkin bill. "This is a real emergency," Duncan told reporters last month. "What we're trying to avert is an education catastrophe."
Layoffs and The Future of Teaching
Some lawmakers are also concerned what young people will think if they are interested in teaching -- and see their own teachers out of work.
"This sends a message to young people that this is an on-again-off-again profession," said Miller. "You don't know from one year to another where you're going to be and you're not going to get the resources that are necessary. We can't afford that message, our communities can't afford that message and clearly the children of this country can't afford this message."
At a congressional hearing this afternoon on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, educators and advocates debated the best way to support teachers and ensure teacher quality going forward.
With such massive layoffs on the horizon, the debate over teacher tenure is alive and well.
"Those 'first-in, last-out' layoff rules are now coming into play as states across the country are finding it necessary to reduce their teaching staffs during this time of fiscal strife," Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, said in his testimony. "The result of basing layoffs on factors unrelated to classroom effectiveness will be that many wonderful young teachers will be let go and several poorly performing but experienced teachers will remain in the classroom."
Winters says the tenure system and the current teacher evaluation process fails to distinguish good teachers from bad ones. Instead, he advocates a new qualitative evaluation system based on a teacher's actual performance in the classroom.
"The common ground on teacher quality is to create systems that continuously develop and accurately evaluate teachers on an ongoing basis." Weingarten said in her testimony before the House Education and Labor Committee. "The current systems, despite their deficiencies, too often form the basis for many consequential decisions, such as whether a teacher is deemed to be performing satisfactorily, receives tenure, or is dismissed for what is determined to be poor performance."
Instead, Weingarten called for evaluation systems that continuously train teachers. "The focus of such systems should be on developing and supporting great teachers, not simply evaluating them," she noted.