States not facing teacher layoffs get federal money from education jobs bill anyway

Chris Moody Contributor
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With the passage of a $26 billion aid package Tuesday to help states pay for Medicaid and teacher salaries, most state budgets will get some help in paying for education programs, but states not facing massive teacher layoffs and cutbacks are also set to receive millions in federal money.

The federal government estimates that the bill will save 161,000 teaching jobs, but North Dakota, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alaska and a handful of other states have kept their educational pay rolls full despite the recession, which has drastically lowered government revenues around the country. Since the new bill provides funds based on state population and the number of children in school, these states will receive funds even if their budgets are in the black. This has some employees at state education departments wondering exactly how they will spend all the fresh cash.

Arkansas, for example, has a fully funded teaching staff for the coming year, but the state will still receive up to $91 million for teaching jobs.

“We’ll hopefully put that money to some very good use and be able to further some initiatives here that we’ve been working on,” said Julie Johnson Thompson, director of communication at the Arkansas Department of Education. “I don’t think there will be a lot of new positions created. I’m not sure that we’d need to create new positions with the money because we have not had any funding cutbacks.”

Other state education departments voiced similar concerns with the bill, questioning the practicality of how an infusion of money that will not reach the state until September at the earliest can really make an impact on the immediate semester. Many districts around the country begin their first semesters in late August.

In Alaska for instance, school districts made hiring decisions for teachers last May, and apportioned the children in each class based upon those numbers. Although the teaching jobs are filled, the state will still receive $24 million under the bill, and a state official asserted that it probably would not go to adding new teachers.

“If this money becomes available September 25, it’s not clear to us exactly how districts can use it,” said Eric Fry, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education. “What would they do, bring in a teacher a month into the school year and reapportion the kids in the classroom?” Fry added that his questions were merely based on the practicality of the matter, and not intended to deride nor support the measure.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education addressed the issue in a media conference call Tuesday, and explained that school districts not in need of the funds could use them to pay salaries of support staff, tutors, counselors, and on-campus therapists.

“There is a fairly broad spectrum of personnel that money can be used to support,” said Carmel Martin, assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Education. “Often in school districts where the teachers were not laid off, many times districts were able to do that by cutting other critical services. So this money could be used to support some of the service in the form of salaries and compensation of benefits.”

If needed, the bill also allows for schools to use the funds for the next school year and can be used to raise teacher salaries.
Martin explained that the money does not have to go toward a new hire, an option many school districts have rejected given that there would be no more money to pay them once the federal money runs dry. So while the federal infusion of cash to school districts could keep teachers on payrolls, it is unlikely that districts will proactively hire new teachers and staff based on the newly available funds.

“Hiring teachers with money that’s short-lived is probably not the way to go,” said Bonnie Miller, administrative services director at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. Her state has not had to face teacher cutbacks and will receive $22 million.

There are also states that are receiving new funds that have not even finished spending the money they received for education from last year’s stimulus bill. Illinois and West Virginia are still holding onto $670 million and $274 million of unspent stimulus money, respectively. Over the next few months Illinois will get another $415 million and West Virginia will collect $55 million for education.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton defended the action in a press briefing Tuesday.

“The vast majority of the stimulus has already been spent,” he said. “It’s either out the door or it’s allocated to a specific project or it’s going to go out in the form of a tax cut that people are going to get in their paycheck.  We don’t think that we should turn any of that around. …We need to build on the progress that we’re making.”

According to the Department of Education, states will be able to apply for the funds allocated to them a few days after President Obama signs the bill into law, which should take place this week.

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