Keep Teachers Teaching, Students Learning and Our Economy Growing

This op-ed by Secretary Arne Duncan appeared in The Hill.

President Obama took office last year in the middle of a full-blown economic crisis. We’re starting to see signs of the economy recovering from that severe recession, which cost more than 8 million jobs and wiped out trillions of dollars in household and family wealth. With four consecutive months of job growth, we are seeing the strongest signs of healing in the economy since President Obama took office.

But the financial foundation of our nation’s public schools remains shaky. Spending by state and local governments, which provide approximately 90 percent of K-12 budgets, continues to decline. In the first quarter alone, spending by state and local government fell by 4 percent. Various estimates suggest that nationwide from 100,000 to 300,000 education jobs are at risk for the coming school year.

In addition to potentially laying off educators, states and districts are cutting programs that are vital for the success of students. They’re canceling or scaling back summer school, early learning and after-school programs. Colleges are laying off instructors. Some school districts are going to four-day weeks. School counselors, nurses, and librarians are also at risk as are extracurricular activities, music programs, and sports.

Enrichment programs like these can be the difference for some students, motivating them to attend school instead of dropping out or helping struggling students catch up. At precisely the time when our students need to be learning more, they will be learning less. At precisely the time when our students need a broader education, the variety of academic offerings is shrinking. In short, the cuts facing our schools endanger our efforts to provide American students with a world-class education.

As a former superintendent in Chicago, I know how difficult it is to create a budget in normal budget times, let alone times like this. I encourage administrators to do everything possible to avoid classroom cuts and look for ways to be more efficient and productive—both to protect students but also to allow reform to move forward.

These job losses would be a drag on the overall economy at a time when we’re seeing promising employment reports. Keeping America’s educators working will help sustain the economic recovery and will sustain momentum for school reforms.

President Obama and I are committed to reforming schools so they can prepare students to succeed in college and careers, but we can’t reform our schools if they don’t have a firm financial foundation. Jobs and reform go hand-in-hand, as they did with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

So far under the Recovery Act, we’ve both saved jobs and pushed reform. We distributed nearly $40 billion to states for education, which has saved or created more than 300,000 education jobs. States are reporting their progress to the Department of Education on a series of reforms that work: developing and adopting college- and career-ready standards and assessments; ensuring teacher effectiveness; building data systems; and turning around low-performing schools. Meanwhile, the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition has stimulated unprecedented state-level reform activity that is gathering more and more momentum each day.

Beyond that, the $650 million Investing in Innovation fund (i3) has inspired some 1,700 districts and non-profit groups to propose promising new reforms and expand existing ones that are already working, and the administration has made an unprecedented commitment to turning around our lowest-performing schools in states across the country.

All of this reform activity is vital to our long-term economic success. As a nation, we must get better and challenge ourselves to produce a more educated workforce. To that end, we plan to extend our reform agenda beyond this year. The president’s proposed 2011 budget includes $1.35 billion for Race to the Top and $500 million for i3, as well as money for turnarounds and teacher quality initiatives.

But our urgent need right now is to save jobs and support the economic recovery. I salute Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) for their leadership in proposing legislation to tackle this issue. The president has asked Congress to include it in the supplemental bill scheduled for consideration in the Senate very soon. The administration has also proposed additional support to protect public safety and child care jobs.

This truly is an emergency, and Congress needs to move on this legislation now. At this moment lawmakers and educators all across America are finalizing education budgets. Many of them are facing tough choices that will threaten programs that serve our children today and ones that will advance reforms that prepare our students for the future. We must act quickly and responsibly to offer them the assistance they need—to keep our teachers teaching, keep our students learning, and keep our economy growing. I look forward to working with Congress to make that happen.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.