This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2010 - The jobs of 3,200 teachers in Missouri who face possible layoffs could be saved if Congress approves $500 million to aid state education programs nationwide.
But a move toward getting that money by taking it out of the administration's Race to the Top educational reform program was criticized Thursday by Chris Nicastro, Missouri's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, as the wrong approach.
"We don't want jobs to be lost," Nicastro said, "and we do want to be sure to maintain the momentum of the reform agenda that is making so much of a difference. We don't want to sacrifice either of those."
Nicastro took part in a conference call with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and two of the Obama administration's top economic officials: Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council. All of them emphasized the importance of making sure that education reform and teaching jobs go hand in hand.
"We don't have to make a choice between reform and making sure that teachers are able to stay in the classroom," Barnes said, adding that any legislation that takes money from Race to the Top to pay for aid for teachers faces a possible veto from the White House.
"This is an investment in our economic prosperity and our children's future. If we don't do this, we hurt both children and teachers."
Earlier this month, the House approved a bill that came up with $800 million to help save teaching jobs by cutting $500 million from Race to the Top; $200 million from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund; and $100 million from a program that helps start charter schools.
The effort is currently in the Senate, where Duncan and others on the conference call are hoping to stave off the cuts.
Nationwide, they said, between 100,000 and 300,000 teachers could be laid off because of drastic cuts in state and local revenue. Romer said that money from the $787 billion federal stimulus package has funded 400,000 education positions, many of them teachers, and that money given to states to keep teachers employed has been very effective.
Duncan noted that in the first round of Race to the Top, two states won awards -- $500 million for Tennessee and $100 million for Delaware. A cut of $500 million from the $3.4 billion funds available in the second round, where winners will be announced later this year, could mean that several states lose the chance to improve education.
"This is real reform, real dollars going to students and schools," Barnes added. "That is unnecessary and a decision we don't have to make."
In Missouri, Nicastro said, the state's fiscal crisis has led to school districts cutting programs such as full-day kindergarten, summer school, physical education, art and music. As teachers lose jobs, she added, the effects ripple through their communities.
The effect is statewide, hurting both rural and urban districts, she added.
Nicastro noted that she has been in education for 34 years, many of them as a business manager or a superintendent, and "I've never seen it like this.
"I think school districts all over are having to make decisions they've never had to make before. The choices they have to make about programs and services to families are truly unprecedented."
She added that the dichotomy posed by some -- either continue education reform or save jobs in the classroom -- is a false one.
"Jobs and reform must go together," Nicastro said. "We cannot afford to roll back the clock on educational reform, and we would urge the Senate and House to find other means of funding the jobs bill beyond making cuts to important reform efforts.
"These programs have developed a foundation and a momentum toward reform that we believe is crucial to the future of education in our states and in our country."