What has happened to the job security of teachers? Theoretically, teachers should be very much like air traffic controllers: government employees serving a vital function that cannot be automated or offshored--and certainly not underfunded.
Yet presently teaching jobs are less secure than at any time since the Great Depression, even as we are officially climbing out of the present recession. In fact, teacher layoffs in many regions are greater now than during the worst of the recession. For example, California laid off 4,500 teachers as the school year ended in May 2008 and another 16,000 in May 2009. But the California layoffs this year are expected to total more than 22,000 jobs. Nationwide, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the job losses this year could remove as many as 300,000 teachers.
Job cuts are also affecting other education-related occupations. Just this week, a school district near where I live in New Jersey laid off all of its teaching assistants. Many of them will be rehired as consultants, but without benefits.
Teachers’ salaries are not funded like the salaries of air traffic controllers. Teachers are paid mostly out of local and state tax revenues, which have dropped drastically in the recession. Although the economy is growing again, tax revenues have not yet rebounded sufficiently to maintain the education budgets of normal years. President Obama’s stimulus plan helped cushion the impact; for example, in Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn applied $1 billion in stimulus money to make up for his state’s budgetary shortfall. The stimulus is estimated to have saved more than 342,000 school jobs, or about 5.5 percent of all the positions in the nation’s 15,000 school systems, according to a study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. But the stimulus money is fast running out.
It’s a cruel irony that these job cuts are arriving just at a time when momentum has never been stronger for reform of K–12 education. The job cuts could actually serve that reform if the least effective teachers were singled out as the ones to be laid off, but in most districts this is not how the layoff decisions can be made. Usually, the new hires are the first to be laid off. That policy, combined with hiring freezes, means that there will be very little new blood--and new ideas--in the classrooms. The bad news about job prospects will also discourage college students from choosing teaching as a career path, thus affecting the supply of new teachers for years after economic conditions will have changed. In some locales, pension systems funded by taxes on working teachers will flounder as the balance between new teachers and retirees tilts toward the latter.
I’m reminded of a favorite quotation from John W. Gardner, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” I want to make the same comparison between education and national defense. There seems to be no limit to how much revenue we budget for defense, yet education gets short-funded. The result will be a nation with a broken educational system, a nation that will be unable to muster soldiers with the skills to fight a modern war--let alone compete in the peacetime world market.
Two weeks ago I was fortunate to be at the Kennedy Space Center as the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off, and I was reminded how resolutely America responded in the late 1950s and early 1960s to what was perceived as a crisis in education, when the Soviets launched Earth’s first artificial satellite and first orbiting human. The national response had concrete effects on my education, starting in the seventh grade. What will it take to regain that resolve?
Update: The tug-of-war between funding for defense and for education has never been more visible than right now. The House is currently working on a supplemental spending bill. When it started out, it covered only emergency relief and a few other items, but no defense. Since then, support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been added, a House Democrats are now working to add funding to help school districts avoid teacher layoffs and to provide Pell grants for low-income college students.