As States Cut Public Workers, Congress Is Reluctant to Act
For tens of thousands of America's teachers, it is the start of an
endless summer. In the past month, the Los Angeles Unified School
sent pink slips to 693 employees. The Detroit school system has
laid off 1,983 teachers, including
Michigan's 2007 teacher of the year. And Greensboro, N.C., has
received national attention, as its supervisor has fired or reassigned
more than 500 teachers in a district serving just 71,000 students.
In 2010, the Obama administration has estimated, school
districts across the country might lay off as many as 300,000
employees, many of them teachers. That would be five times the number
of layoffs in 2009, and ten times the number of layoffs in 2008.
These pink-slipped teachers are just the first and most noticeable
wave of public-sector employees getting the chop as states slash their
budgets. (Schools need to notify teachers that they might be laid off
at the end of spring or beginning of summer in order to officially let
them go before school comes into session in the fall.) As state and
local governments prepare to begin their new fiscal year on July 1,
they are frantically cutting not just teachers, but social workers,
firefighters and police officers. Oakland, Calif., is firing
80 police officers, more than 10 percent of the current force. New
Jersey and New York are bracing
for state-wide cuts in governmental offices.
The reason? Last year, the federal government provided stimulus
funds for states to make up their yawning budget gaps. (Every state
save for Vermont is required to keep a balanced budget.) This year,
Congress has declined to step in.
It looks like 2010 might be the annus horribilis for those
state budgets, according to the Center on Budget and Policy
Priorities. "Even though state tax revenues are starting to rebound a
little bit, the absence of the federal assistance from last year and the
need to pass the [state Medicaid funding] and education assistance is
huge," Jon Shure, the deputy director of the CBPP's state fiscal
project, explains. "There's reason to believe this year will be the
The teachers and other public-sector employees might be just the
start. The CBPP has estimated that if states cut their spending from
2009 to 2010 the same level they did from 2008 to 2009, it might cost
as many as 900,000 public- and private-sector jobs - swelling the ranks
of the unemployed by five percent or more.
While the outlook this year is bad, it is hardly better down the
road. "Usually after a recession ends it takes a couple years for state
revenues to rebound," Shure says. "If it normally takes two to three,
and this recession is among the worst ever, we're really in uncharted
Now deep in that uncharted territory, states crafting their third
straight recession-era budgets have no recourse but to slash services
and jobs. For schools, "the cuts are definitely going to hurt a lot
more and deeper in poor urban districts," says Elena Silva, senior
policy analyst for the think tank Education Sector. "The teachers there
are much more important, much more urgent for those kids. If they lose
a year or three months [of educational gains], it hurts a lot more for
kids in struggling schools than suburban kids. It's a double effect:
In cities, there are more teachers laid off because of budget gaps, but
the kids in those cities are most vulnerable and most likely to be
hurt by budget cuts."
Facing overstuffed classrooms and reduced police patrols, the Obama
administration has led a furious charge to convince Congress to help
the states meet their budget needs. In a letter to the majority and
minority House and Senate leaders earlier this month, President Obama
wrote, "I am concerned ... that the lingering economic damage left by the
financial crisis we inherited has left a mounting employment crisis at
the state and local level that could set back the pace of our economic
recovery." He continued: "If we allow these layoffs to go forward, it
will not only mean hundreds of thousands fewer teachers in our
classrooms, firefighters on call and police officers on the beat, it
will also mean more costs helping these Americans look for new work,
while their lost paychecks will mean less tax revenues and less demand
for the products and services provided by other workers."
But despite the efforts of individual members of Congress and the
administration, the House and Senate have come up short on delivering
aid to the states. Democrats cut extended stimulus funding for Medicaid
through the end of this year - not, as many states had anticipated,
through June 2011. On Thursday, centrist deficit hawks finally refused
to vote for the trimmed-down jobs bill.
Take Alabama, for instance. The state's legislature had already
adjourned for the fiscal year, its budget set with an expected $197
million in federal Medicaid money. Much
of that money is now gone.
California, too, is reeling. "I support restraining federal
spending, but cutting the only funding designed to help states maintain
the very safety-net programs Congress mandates us to preserve will
have devastating consequences," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.)
wrote in a letter
to his state's congressional delegation in response to the funding
The reduced Medicaid funding has not only meant the end of special
programs, such as anti-domestic violence initiatives, daycare and
mental health services. It will end up costing teachers and other
public-sector workers too. States such as Pennsylvania are reacting to
the Medicaid funding cut by rearranging their budgets - and sacking
And other, bolder provisions to save local jobs are dead in the
water. Rep. George Miller's (D-Calif.) Local
Jobs for America Act would have provided $75 billion to local
governments to keep employees on the payroll. It is stuck in committee.
Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) proposal
to grant $23 billion to keep public-school teachers in their
classrooms, the Keep Our Educators Working Act, one of several such
edu-jobs proposals, has foundered despite support from Education
Secretary Arne Duncan and the White House.
As of yet, the Senate has no plans to authorize any additional funds
to help states close their budget gaps - and with teachers unions
protesting and citizens starting to question the cuts, Silva, of
Education Sector, sees a "huge political mess" fomenting for the fall.
"A lot of people running for office now are not going to be in
really good shape," she notes. "If you watch those districts where
there have been significant teacher layoffs, unpopular layoffs, it will
be interesting to see where the blame falls."