Stealing the money to save teachers?

August 19, 2010

Lee Sustar reports that school districts around the country are trying to pocket billions in federal money intended to put laid-off teachers back to work.

YOUR PRESIDENT wants you to save teachers' jobs--and gave you billions of dollars to do it. So why are you putting the money aside instead?

That's the question that teachers' unions across the U.S. are asking their bosses in the wake of the $10 billion education jobs bill passed August 10. Although the money is dedicated to putting laid-off teachers back in the classrooms, local school districts and politicians are trying to use the money to advance their "reform" agenda rather than restore jobs.

So it's time for teachers' union activists to dust off the old line about the 1930s labor law reform under President Franklin Roosevelt--"Your president wants you to join a union"--and use the unequivocal pronouncements of President Barack Obama to hold school officials accountable.

And for his part, Obama was unequivocal. Standing alongside laid-off teachers on the eve of a special session in the House of Representatives, Obama said, "I urge Congress to pass this proposal so that the outstanding teachers who are here today can go back to educating our children."

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union rally against layoffs in July
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union rally against layoffs in July

Yet the question remains as to whether the $10 billion allocated to restore teacher jobs will be grabbed by local school districts intent on using the money to protect administrators and to push for "school reform" instead.

That's been the initial response of school officials around the U.S., who claim that they have to bank the funds to avoid future job cuts rather than rescind the layoff notices that have gone out since the end of the last school year.

In Chicago, for example, a school board official speaking at a press conference about the education jobs bill announced that the money would go to "programs." As Substance News, the Chicago rank-and-file teachers' newspaper and Web site, pointed out, Sen. Dick Durbin, the number-two Democrat in the Senate, who also spoke at the press conference, said the money was to put teachers' back in the classroom, period.

Nevertheless, as the New York Times reported, most school administrators are angling for ways to hold on to the money rather than put teachers back to work--even at the cost of significantly larger class sizes. "With the economic outlook weakening," the Times wrote, "they argue that big deficits are looming for the next academic year and that they need to preserve the funds to prevent future layoffs."

In California, school officials claim the legislature's deadlock over the state budget has made it difficult to decide when and how to allocate the $1.2 billion in federal money allocated to save teachers jobs. In Los Angeles, where teachers have taken both layoffs and a pay cut as the result of furlough days, officials aren't committing themselves to rolling back those concessions, arguing instead that the money is needed to avoid layoffs in the future.

In San Francisco, most layoffs have already been rolled back. That sounds like good news--but the apparent reason for the pullback is that a larger than expected number of veteran teachers have retired, and young teachers have quit rather than wait for the ax to fall.

And in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying to foist a two-year pay freeze on teachers in exchange for a no-layoff deal, school officials claim they had already budgeted for the additional federal money, and therefore couldn't roll back any layoffs. But New York City teacher union activists are highly skeptical, as the education jobs bill was seen as a lost cause until recently.

So while $10 billion of federal money is in the pipeline, teachers unions will still have to fight to make sure it goes where it belongs--to put laid-off teachers back to work and keep class sizes to at least tolerable levels.

THE BATTLE to roll back layoffs is well underway in Chicago, where the new leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), backed by union delegates, rejected demands for a wage freeze and other concessions in order to avoid a threatened 1,000 layoffs. Their no-concessions position was vindicated by the education jobs bill that was based on the clear message that adequate class size is critical to decent public education--which means rehiring laid-off teachers.

The education jobs bill will likely force the Chicago Board of Education to take those demands off the table. But the board is trying to make its earlier layoffs stick while pushing through a program of more targeted layoffs and terminations.

For example, Chicago Schools CEO Ron Huberman, who got the authority from the board to increase high school classes from 31 to 33, announced the limit would stay at 31 after all. But a look at the union contract shows that high school class size should actually be pegged at 28.

Even aside from the influx of federal funds, there's plenty of misallocated money in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) budget that could be allocated to avoid layoffs. At an August 18 Board of Education public hearing on the budget, Margaret Royzen, a math teacher at Hyde Park High School, identified tens of millions of savings buried in the 425-page budget book released at the meeting, as did Jay Rehak, a CTU representative on the teachers' pension fund board.

But the most telling information at the hearing wasn't in the printed CPS budget or the hundreds of additional pages released on a CD-ROM drive. While the board representatives refused to answer questions--responses will be forthcoming at the next board meeting, they said--union members took the opportunity to make their case to the public.

Among those who testified was Xian Barrett, a prominent activist in the CTU's Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which swept union elections earlier this year. Barrett, a teacher at Percy Julian High School on Chicago's South Side, was among the young teachers who got the axe in recent days. He spoke movingly about his experience as a Japanese teacher at a school where the public "only notices our students when we have to bury them."

But veterans are also under fire--people like Gina Baruch, a nationally certified art teacher at Northwest Middle School. After 17 years on the job--14 of them with tenure--and excellent ratings, she was "honorably dismissed" after the last school year. Not laid off, but fired--which means she's out of the system, rather than placed in the pool of displaced teachers who have a year to get another job before.

If this decision stands, Baruch--who brought in $90,000 in grant money to her school--won't get rehired, despite the federal teachers' jobs money. She won't achieve the 20 years on the job she needs for a maximum pension. "I'm not entitled to health insurance," she told the audience of teachers, parents and students. "I have to go on unemployment."

The principal at Baruch's school justified her firing by citing a change in the school program. But in fact, principals across CPS have been targeting tenured teachers in order to keep their school's payroll down--and they're not letting the union contract get in their way.

Another "honorably dismissed teacher," Dee Bolos, was fired from Social Justice High School despite her nomination for the prestigious Golden Apple Award, her contribution as a basketball coach, and her work as a drama and English teacher. "I don't want to work in a private school," she said in her testimony. "I don't want to work in the suburbs. I don't want to be anything but a neighborhood school teacher."

THE CTU filed a lawsuit August 2 to overturn the firing of some 1,000 teachers on the basis that teachers' rights to due process were violated. "The case is on a fast track, and we look forward to every dismissed tenured teacher being reinstated to their position," said CTU attorney Tom Geoghegan, who will help present the union's case in court on September 15.

The lawsuit highlights the more aggressive approach of the new CTU leadership. Now, passage of the federal education jobs bill only reinforces the union's argument--that keeping teachers in the classroom is a top priority.

Of course, the money for the education jobs bill is miniscule compared to the trillions of dollars that was used to rescue the banks or the hundreds of billions used to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, teachers across the country have been handed a rare opportunity to emerge from their defensive crouch and take the initiative to demand for fully funded public schools.

Pushing to overturn layoffs--with the official backing of the White House, no less--is an excellent place to start. But school officials' stingy approach has made it clear that teachers' unions and their allies will have to fight to bring those jobs back.

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