$10 billion teacher jobs bill passes, but the controversy isn’t over

(photo courtesy of Boris23)

President Obama has won his summer-long battle for a bill that will funnel to states $10 billion to save teachers’ jobs. The House of Representatives returned early from its summer recess yesterday to pass the measure, which totals $26 billion and also includes money for other public workers, and President Obama signed it almost immediately.

The bill’s journey to the president’s desk has been a roller coaster: It has been decried by Republicans and others as a gift to teachers’ unions, while a bid by House Democrats to snatch some money away from Obama’s signature Race to the Top competition nearly scuttled the bill completely. It was revived from the dead when the money to pay for it was found elsewhere, including, to some critics’ horror, by cutting back on food stamps for poor families.

At the same time, with state and local budgets still in flux, it’s hard to know exactly how many teachers were going to lose their jobs this year. Yesterday, Obama administration officials said 160,000 teacher jobs would have been lost due to the recession, the number of jobs that they say will be restored with the new infusion of money. Previously, however, the U.S. Department of Education estimated that as many as 300,000 teachers and other personnel could be laid off.

But many teachers who were sent pink slips over the summer haven’t necessarily lost their jobs. Lori Welch, a laid-off teacher from Perth Amboy, N.J. who stood with President Obama at a press conference on the bill, is a case in point. She apparently learned yesterday that she was going to be rehired – before the new money reaches her district. (Not that Perth Amboy isn’t in dire straits this year.)

A press release by the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second largest teachers’ union, explained that the district was rehiring Welch to replace teachers who are retiring or leaving. This has been a trend in New Jersey, where possible changes to pension rules — intended to save the state money in the wake of the budget crisis — have led to a flood of teacher retirements.

New York City also presents an odd case: No jobs were lost because the mayor cut wage increases to save jobs, so it’s unclear what will happen with the new $200 million the city expects to receive.

There has also been concern that the money will arrive too late to rehire teachers, although U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has promised that the process for receiving the money will be streamlined. School districts can use the funds for positions other than teachers, Obama administration officials said yesterday, so in some places the focus may be on counselors, office staff, custodians and instructional coaches who were let go. The money must be spent by September 2012.

The White House has created an interactive map showing how much money is going to each state; it’s also in table format, if you prefer.