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A teacher bailout bid falls by wayside

A congressional effort to avert layoffs by funding salaries fails amid political jitters.

WASHINGTON - A $23 billion payout to save thousands of educators' jobs stalled Thursday, perhaps for good, a victim of election-year jitters among moderate Democratic lawmakers over deficit spending and lukewarm support from the White House.

The proposal's chief advocate in the House, Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D., Wis.), abruptly canceled a committee meeting to put the money in a war spending bill.

The development could sink what progressives in Congress and some in the Obama administration had described as a life raft for as many as 300,000 teachers and other school personnel whose billions of dollars in stimulus salary subsidies run out this fall.

"The specter of layoffs is there," said Maryland Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard. "The economy has not totally turned around yet."

Maureen Dinnen, a retired teacher and school board member in Broward County, Fla., said 800 teacher jobs were in jeopardy there.

"I think to myself, the future of our schools, that's just as important as the auto industry or the financial interests," Dinnen said. "That's our lifeblood for the future."

The lifeblood for politicians is winning the next election, and voters have literally been screaming at them for months to hold down government spending - even the kind intended to spur the nation's economic recovery.

'We can't say ...'

Obama's $862 billion stimulus bill bailed out slumping companies and gave educators $50 billion, but it also played a role in costing Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter his seat in Pennsylvania's primary elections last week.

"We can't say, 'Oh, let's put this kid on hold for two years until the economy recovers,' " Obey had said Wednesday at a news conference with Education Committee Chairman George Miller (D., Calif.) and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "Because the economy may recover, but the kid won't."

Even as they spoke and the clock ticked toward Congress' Memorial Day recess, there were signs from the top down that not everyone considered the situation so dire.

President Obama did not request the money in his budget, and Duncan seemed to be the only member of the administration making a forceful case for it.

'Pink slips'

On Thursday, the White House sent out a statement not from Obama but from his press secretary, Robert Gibbs. In it, Gibbs called for some emergency funding for teachers, but he stopped short of saying how much.

"There are thousands of teachers who will receive pink slips in the coming months," Gibbs said in the statement. "The president strongly supports targeted aid focused on preventing these teacher layoffs in order to stem the education crisis."

Finally, Obey on Thursday canceled and did not reschedule a meeting of his panel that was to have considered reviving the measure.

Some state officials, like those in Michigan, had never counted on more emergency money for educators after what was supposed to be a one-time payment last year.

Elsewhere, school officials said they were desperate.

Atlanta public schools, with 50,000 students, cut $67 million from this year's budget and had been watching the news out of Washington.

"We are disappointed by the potential of losing out on federal support for helping to keep effective teachers in our classrooms during these hard economic times," district spokesman Keith Bromery said.