WASHINGTON — The Senate's most powerful Democrat on education unveiled a $23 billion bailout for public schools on Wednesday, hoping to keep classrooms staffed as cash-strapped states burn through the last of their federal stimulus dollars.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said that unless Congress acts, many of the education policy changes currently being weighed by the Obama administration and Congress will be pointless.
"This has to move right away," said Harkin. "The pink slips are going out right now, and it can't wait."
As chairman of both the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the Appropriations subcommittee for education issues, Harkin controls the flow of education legislation and dollars in the Senate.
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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said a bill would need to be passed by June to prevent an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 school layoffs. However, Duncan stopped short of endorsing Harkin's proposal, which has the support of 13 Democrats but no Republicans.
"We want to work with him on it," Duncan said. "It's the right thing."
Congress has tried to pass some sort of education jobs bill since December, when the House of Representatives earmarked $23 billion for a similar measure that failed in the Senate. Under Harkin's proposal, states would apply for funds, much like they do under the stimulus law, to fill gaps in their education staff budgets.
Republican deficit hawks are yet to push back on the measure, which wouldn't be paid for with cuts from other areas of the 2010 budget, Harkin said. Calls to leading GOP senators on education weren't returned Wednesday.
Harkin said he has assurances from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that the bill will get a push to the Senate floor, but wouldn't speculate on a timeline.
The measure already has gained backing from numerous teacher groups — even ones skeptical of the administration's approach to education policy.
"As the economy goes, so goes state funding," said Joe Morton, Alabama's superintendent of education, who testified before Congress on Wednesday along with several other U.S. school chiefs. "We know that we need a jobs bill."
Most states fund classrooms through some combination of taxes on income, sales and property. Even as the U.S. climbs out of recession, high unemployment has eviscerated state revenues. In Alabama, this will translate into 2,827 layoffs before August, Morton said.
"Superintendents are planning their budgets now," Duncan said. "If you do it in October, it's too late."
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