House members return to Washington this week for a special session that will include a vote on a $26.1 billion spending package intended partially to keep states from laying off teachers, a move some critics have called a “bailout for teachers unions.”
The Senate last week passed their own version of the bill, which cuts $12 billion beginning in 2014 from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or “food stamps,” program to help make the measure deficit neutral. Anti-hunger advocates and conservatives alike decried the move.
“We’re taking money from feeding poor kids so middle class teachers don’t have to look for jobs,” said Frederick M. Hess, director of the Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
The bill has spawned criticism from poverty issue advocates as well, who have voiced dissent over the depletion of funding for the food stamp program.
“The bill, if enacted, will do far more harm than good,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a non-profit group that focuses on hunger issues. “FRAC urges the House of Representatives to reject the Senate bill and move quickly to pass its version of Child Nutrition Reauthorization.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that more than 40 million Americans currently use food stamps, a number they predict will increase by nearly three million within the next year.
Some House Democrats have said they will seek a way to pass a House version with the food stamps funding in tact or try to reinstate it later. Michael Mershon, a spokesman for Massachusetts Democratic Rep. James McGovern, told The Hill the congressman is “considering legislation to restore the cuts while finding another offset.”
The pending House bill, which also includes $16 billion for Medicaid programs in the states, includes no requirements that school districts balance their budgets or report on whether the money is making a measurable effect in the classroom. Support for the bill has mainly been driven by the Federation for American Teachers, the largest group that represents teachers’ interests, which has donated more than $1.7 million to Democrats in 2010.
“It’s a wheel barrel of cash,” said Hess, adding that the infusion of money into the districts could only make it harder on local leaders to fix their budgets.
“It’s going to strip political cover from the superintendents and school boards that are trying to convince people that have to make hard decisions,” he said. “When the teachers union and advocacy groups can say ‘what a minute, why don’t you just go to DC and get some more?’ You now sound like the bad guy instead of the responsible steward.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the bill Monday, which President Obama is expected to sign.
“This bill … will help keep 160,000 teachers around the country in the classroom as we start school the next couple weeks rather than on the unemployment line,” Duncan told Fox News.
Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner criticized the bill last week, calling it “a payoff to union bosses and liberal special interests.”