Schools bailout package should have strings attached


The stirrings of better economic times have not reached state budgets and certainly haven’t led to increased or even stable revenue for schools. And if the country is going to continue to invest in jobs as part of the economic stimulus, it only makes sense for some of those to be the jobs of teachers. We have strong reservations about the $23-billion Keep Our Educators Working Act, expected to reach the Senate floor by the beginning of next week, but those are outweighed by the alternative scenario in which millions of students around the country would lose their teachers.

The new package would come on top of $54 billion in stabilization funds given to schools last year in addition to Title I and other federal education spending. That money was supposed to last schools for two academic years, but unions exerted heavy pressure on school districts to spend all or most of it in the first year in the hopes that more money would show up by the next year. Many of them did, including L.A. Unified. We worry about rewarding bureaucrats for imprudent decisions, but conditions have worsened in the last year. The need is urgent.

That said, the bill is poorly designed, a giveaway that demands nothing in return, including real accountability. Any district receiving money should be prohibited from laying off or rehiring teachers, or reassigning them to other schools, strictly on a seniority basis. That practice already has left schools that have large numbers of low-income students without enough full-time teachers and with less-qualified teachers.

The federal money is supposed to be spent on teachers and other school staff. But one provision would allow states with balanced-budget amendments — all of them but Vermont — to use a portion of the money to retire debt or build a reserve fund. That wording must be eliminated.

Even more important, Congress should use this opportunity to prod school districts into better financial planning for the future. The federal government cannot continue to bail out schools to the tune of more than $20 billion a year. Districts that receive the money should be required to submit plans for long-term savings, including more reasonable pension plans and benefits packages.

The Obama administration, which supports the added education funding, should be careful. Its Race to the Top program, which gives selective federal grants to states that agree to certain reforms sought by U.S. Department of Education, is one-fifth the size of this package. As hard up as they are, several states already are staying out of the grant competition; they’ll have even less incentive to apply if they can get help from this new pot of money with no additional effort. Just as important as providing aid to schools during an emergency crunch is providing smart aid that doesn’t encourage schools to repeat the mistakes of the past.