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David Obey's bankrupt idea to bail out teachers

I’ve argued previously that spending $23 billion in federal money to prevent teacher layoffs is a bad idea, in part because it enables state and local governments to put off structural reforms -- pedagogical, administrative and financial. Now comes the bill’s leading backer, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) to make the inverse relationship between the teacher bailout and reform explicit.

Having failed to get the $23 billion, he’s promoting a $10 billion substitute -- paid for in part by cutting $500 million from President Obama’s innovative Race to the Top reform effort, as well as $300 million from charter schools and performance-pay model programs. Obey calls reform a “luxury” the country cannot afford during the recession.

This myopic agenda mimics that of the teacher unions, whose trusty ally Obey has been for 41 years in Congress. He’s retiring this year, but apparently can’t resist one last misguided fight. "Any teachers' job you save is a job that ought to be saved," he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

But, of course, the teacher layoff menace is exaggerated to begin with. Teacher unions and Obey based their alarmist case on the number of early-year layoff notices, despite the fact that this indicator has historically over-predicted layoffs. And, sure enough, the latest news confirms this:

  • In Los Angeles, public schools have rescinded all but about 600 of the 3,100 pink slips they sent out in March. Why? Retirements created openings -- as happens every year between spring and fall -- and the teachers union agreed to modest wage restraint.
  • Oceanside, Calif., plans to lay off only 25 teachers, far fewer than the 118 who received layoff warnings in March. Retirements and pay concessions by the union saved many of the jobs.
  • North Carolina found enough money in budget savings and state lottery receipts to save 1,600 teacher jobs. Among the cuts was a long-needed reform, worth $9 million, that ended a de facto tuition subsidy for athletes at state universities.
  • Chicago, with help from the state of Illinois, has managed to reduce teacher layoffs from a projected 2,700 to about 1,200 and maintain class sizes at normal levels. Even more jobs can be saved if teacher unions will forgo a scheduled 4 percent pay increase, a modest sacrifice in a time of near-zero inflation. After all, just up the road in Ann Arbor, Mich., 191 layoffs have been canceled because teachers accepted wage restraint to save their colleagues’ jobs.
See a pattern? The school funding crisis is no fun for anyone, and it surely complicates the already tough job of educating kids. Layoffs are heartbreaking for teachers who lose their jobs -- just as they are for all the other Americans who have lost their jobs in this recession but were not singled out for special government protection.

But there is no proven link between per capita education spending and actual student learning. If they were causally connected, Newark, N.J., would have the best-performing schools in the state, instead of the worst.

The current crisis has the beneficial effect of forcing state and local governments -- and, crucially, teacher unions -- to decide how many teachers are really needed and how they’re going to pay for them. Jobs that get preserved this way are more likely to prove sustainable over time. Any jobs that David Obey might save would only be safe until the next time they require a federal bailout.

By Charles Lane  | July 7, 2010; 1:03 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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We bail out farmers year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation. So what's wrong with bailing out teachers once in a while? At least teachers don't hire masses of illegal aliens.

Posted by: Garak | July 7, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Borrow $23 billion from the Chinese and give it to government employees. How about cutting government pensions instead?

Posted by: win_harrington | July 7, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Obama's race to the top is plunge into the abyss. Our public education system is a 13-year system, divided into 50 large chunks which are further divided by hundreds of local systems. For the White House or its functionaries to think they can dictate from the top without consideraton of the various links in the chain is absurd. Now we are laying off hundreds of teachers, perhaps less than originally proposed but still massive, and we are discouraging so many out of the profession. What is Obama thinking...or isn't he?

Posted by: sailhardy | July 7, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Garak suggests that we should bail out teachers because we bail out farmers. He adds that at least farmers don't hire illegal aliens.

Where does one start with trying tackling so many illogical statements in such a short statement. First of all most farm subsidies are harmful and should be stopped. Having one problem does not mean we should adopt another. Furthermore our farmers are the most productive in the world. Wouldst that we could say the same for our teachers. Garak is living proof of their inability to teach critical thinking.

Posted by: jkk1943 | July 7, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

These are the SAME "education" jobs that were paid for by the 2009 stimulus funds. Now, they need more money to keep these jobs in 2010. Expect 2011 to need the same tens of billions, as well as 2012, 2013, etc, etc. I'm sure the union is in favor of government guaranteed employment.

Posted by: kitchendragon50 | July 7, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

In a country that has more dropouts and dummies than any other industrial democracy, cutting the jobs of those trying to instruct them seems awfully short-sighted. That said, the call for some salary concessions are warranted. And let's address subsidies--like the 94 BILLION the oil companies get, like the 150 Billion corporations get in the form of tax breaks. And addressing bloat with the farmers is fine--but confine those cuts to agribusiness, not family farms. Cut 150 billion from the bloated DoD budget--remember that we spend 48 percent of the world's total defense expenditure; seem just a BIT much, doesn't it?

Posted by: bklyndan22 | July 7, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

When I was a teacher I had no employees.

I quit teaching and now I employ other people.

Teachers may be nice people, but keeping teaching jobs isn't an efficient way to stimulate job growth.

We bailed the teachers out last year with no permanent result. The same teachers will still be fired next year, unless we do a third bailout.

Better to increase class sizes for awhile and grow businesses to increase the tax base.

Posted by: jfv123 | July 7, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Lane supposes that Newark, NJ student performance would match that of Millburn, if only GOP Gov. Christie smashes the evil unions and wipes out tenure or pensions.

Well, let Christie appoint Lane to head a "Goof Busters" team of GOP-TeaBag volunteers to teach a randomly selected group of Newark 14 year-olds, and prove their claims. Perhaps the Coors, Gates, or Kroc Foundations can foot the bill. The condition: ordinary kids, same communities, same infrastructure, same materials, and (yes) same salaries. I'm sure Lane would have trouble with the last condition, unless his voluteers were merely on sabbatical from >$150k p/a perches somewhere else. Who would teach in Newark, at risk of termination if kids don't achieve a suburb level score, without some job security or pension?

Posted by: jkoch2 | July 7, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Funding and salaries tied to performance, and national standards to get on par with global competitors, are long overdue. Research now in on charters exposes them as the non-solution they are. They do not produce any better result than public schools, only drain funds from them.

Balkingpoints / www

Posted by: RField7 | July 7, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Please tell you AWOL copy editors that as a verb phrase, "bail out" is two words. Are they not back from lunch yet?

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | July 7, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

@jkk1943: I noted this only to make the point that while some are incensed at "bailing out" teachers, those same people seem to have no problem with "bailing out" people in another industry, and doing so constantly.

Even assuming our farmers are the most productive in the world (a point I do not accept without evidence), they are only because of perpetual "bail outs" and low labor costs due to hiring illegal aliens. And again, where's the rage against those who invite undocumented workers into the US? Surely you're not so naive as to believe the alleged problem of undocumented workers is due to anything other than the voracious appetite of American business for their services.

All I want to see ended is the clear double standard. Until then, I see no reason to support attacking the symptoms of the alleged problem and not its root cause. Or do you see no problem with double standards and wasteful futility?

BTW, New Zealand ended agricultural subsidies, and it's agricultural sector is doing fine.

And by what standard do you condemn our teachers as not being the best in the world? Are they not the best supported? Not the best paid? Not the most respected? Do they not have the best parental support? Not the best culling of disruptive students?

@curmedgeon: What about the noun? Do we see a bail out or a bailout? Should we defer to the Microsoft spell check? Or is it spellcheck?

Posted by: Garak | July 7, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

THANK YOU for reporting on this. The teacher pay-off of 2010 was stomach turning from the beginning, but this makes it 10x worse.

However, Dems still are in need of votes come November, and the lack of a crisis never stopped them before from giving away money in exchange for votes.

The power hungry and liberty snatching Democratic machine at work.

Posted by: dnara | July 7, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

WOW our most important Investment and Teachers are on the short end again.

The GOP and their convervatives have always hated the Public Schools System.

Hense their efforts to create an alternate education system and or destroy the current Public Education system..
Especially designed to produce new republicans.

They have spies and activists delibrately embedded in the public schools system and think tanks focused on limiting thinking skills.

They hated the College Students challenging them during Vietnam.

Starting with Reagans regime they killed new technology development and public education.

They have successfully created and alternate news and pushed creationism and intelligent design and forced science books to have Theory is not a Fact, RW media and news.

Now Texas publishers are rewriting history books, and have altered their public schools to become barely functional.

It is a full court push to bend the minds of the rational.

Posted by: godwithfire55 | July 7, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Any gov't spending should be overseen with great care. Public employee pensions and health insurance are two of the biggest items in state/local spending budgets. Some of the biggest tax problems are property taxes which are used to fund these items. Many communities are reaching the breaking point on these taxes. We have to be able to rational assess supporting teachers properly but without bankrupting ourselves in the process.

Posted by: kchses1 | July 7, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

If there's one thing that should be priority one, it's education. College in some states (NY, Calif.) used to be virtually free; now it costs tens of thousands of dollars to attend the same universities. It was the GI Bill after WWII that educated all those veterans who in turn built this country into a superpower. Knowledge has always been power. The main problem with higher education is its cost; the main problems with elementary/secondary education are uninvolved parents, television, and computers. Keep cutting back on the numbers of teachers and see how much worse the problems get.

Posted by: ihave4ducks | July 7, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse


the main reason we cannot have a highly educated public is because of the conservatives in the GOP.

They do not want an educated public.
They need a moldable public willing to believe the lie.

The main reason ther is no longer free college education in California, or a GI Bill..

Posted by: godwithfire55 | July 7, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse


The answer to all of your questions about teachers is yes. We are poorly funded, poorly supported, and poorly paid. As for respected, witness many of the other comments here. I agree with many of your points and would like to add that the world is changing faster than most of us realize. Many of the jobs that we hold today did not exist 20 years ago (web developer, genetic engineer, etc.). What new jobs will the future hold? And who will prepare the next generation to think well enough and be creative and flexible enough to do (or invent) those jobs, if not for teachers? We as a society cheat ourselves when we do not invest in educating the next generation.

Posted by: doublehelix | July 7, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

fr jfv123:

>...Better to increase class sizes for awhile and grow businesses to increase the tax base.<

No. Larger class sizes translate to kids not getting individual help when they need it, such as in math. I should know.

When I was in sixth grade, waaaay back in 1968, we had 36 in the class. 36. Had to split the class, and being a little slower than the others, I still was REFUSED the additional help that I so badly needed.

Posted by: Alex511 | July 7, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

I really hate repeating myself........

Keep getting a picture of "The little old woman she lived in a shoe, she had so many children, she didn't know what to do."

If a single parent was raising 28-30 children in a small house all by her/himself, people would think that parent was nuts. Yet, many commenters and the writer of this column seem to think it's no problem to just add another 2 or 3 kids to a teacher's classroom of 28 or so children, and take on not only the extra children, but the extra parents, testing and papers to be graded, all so this ill-conceived RTTP can be carried out via a LOTTERY of sorts,sure to leave most struggling schools in the dust anyway.

AND, would you ask our Generals to compete in a lottery to see which of them would get the coveted funds for the best weapons and other war components? I suppose it would be worth it, even if you had to cut the troops to do the job.

I strongly doubt, Mr. Lane, that you would last 3 weeks, let alone a year in one of today's classrooms, private, charter, OR public.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | July 7, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

Educating our young is as IMPORTANT as funding the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and far less expensive.

Further,using Newark as an example of why not to spend money on education gives a good glimpse into the insight, agenda and experience of this writer.

As the English say "pure rubbish."

Posted by: agra09 | July 7, 2010 9:25 PM | Report abuse

We need to stop talking about educational spending in terms of its benefit or detriment to teachers. Teachers are public servants, and while I would like to see them well compensated, that really isnt the point. The real point is the invaluable service that teachers provide to their communities and to their nation. If we cut educational spending, teachers get screwed, no doubt. But if we focus on that, we miss the greater point. If we cut educational spending, we are ALL screwed. Our children's education will suffer - there is no doubt of that. And, even if cuts to educational spending are short term, the damage to our communities will extend well into the future.

Posted by: kuato | July 7, 2010 11:08 PM | Report abuse

"Now we are laying off hundreds of teachers, perhaps less than originally proposed but still massive, and we are discouraging so many out of the profession. What is Obama thinking...or isn't he?"

Folks don't get twisted up over teachers, schools and education.

There are 2.4 billion Chinese and Indians, pretty soon they will produce enough college grads to equal the entire population of the USA. Like everything else the U.S. can import nurses, doctors, managers etc. U.S. companies are already moving R&D to India and China .... sooo who needs teachers earning middle class salaries.

Posted by: knjincvc | July 8, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

"the main reason we cannot have a highly educated public is because of the conservatives in the GOP.

They do not want an educated public.
They need a moldable public willing to believe the lie."

Good grief! Replace conservatives with liberals and you would be right. Liberals have been in control of education, especially higher education for 70 years. The inner cities are especially hurting, and guess who is in charge of big cities. That's right -- Liberal politicians, liberal administrations, and liberal teachers.

Posted by: groovercg | July 8, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

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