WASHINGTON —Congress bailed out Wall Street and the auto industry, but it appears to have drawn the line — at least for now — at rescuing teachers.
A Democratic plan to send $23 billion to the states to save the jobs of 100,000 to 300,000 public school teachers, librarians, counselors and other employees slated for layoffs looks dead for the time being.
Blame it on election year politics. The anti-Washington, anti-spending mood has become so potent that even Democrats are antsy about helping teachers, among their most long-standing and generous allies.
"We are in a situation now where a portion of our caucus is rebelling against just about any kind of spending," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri.
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The layoffs have already begun. Advocates for teachers are calling them catastrophic. Critics of the emergency aid say states need to clean up their fiscal acts and make reforms.
In the meantime, large, populous states like California and Texas, for example, are each expected to absorb the loss of more than 30,000 teachers and other personnel, according to White House estimates.
In Kansas, where a rough battle in the Legislature earlier this year left school funding flat, more than 3,300 people could lose their jobs.
The Wichita school district eliminated 117 positions, which resulted in the layoffs of about 40 driver's education, administrative and job-share employees.
"We have a very good record of improving student achievement," said Dale Dennis, the state's deputy commissioner of education. "The reduction of these folks will be very challenging at the local level."
But Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, said that if the money is needed, the solution was not to go further into debt, but to cut "wasteful spending in other areas of the federal budget."
In Missouri, more than 7,000 teachers and others could see pink slips, according to the White House.
"Especially with a young family, it's really tough," said Eric Kilgore, a recently laid-off social studies teacher at Staley High School in Kansas City, Mo. "We're sitting here day to day not knowing what's going to happen."
Schools are cutting staff and programs because the recession has depleted state tax revenues, which pay for public education.
Democrats in the House had hoped to pass the $23 billion emergency bailout this week as part of a spending bill for the war in Afghanistan. That bill was slated for passage. But fiscally conservative members from tough districts weren't happy about having to defend another vote that would increase the deficit.
The school aid measure never came to a vote. Nor did it have any more luck in the Senate, where some Democrats were equally jumpy about spending, and the majority couldn't secure the necessary 60 votes for passage.
"Given the size of the current federal deficit, I have reservations about the federal government taking on greater responsibility for education funding," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri.
Teachers have been a powerful voice in Democratic Party politics. The two largest unions gave congressional Democrats more than $4 million in 2008 and have contributed more than $1.7 million so far in this election cycle.
Kim Anderson, director of government relations for the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, said that given what schools and students are likely to face in the fall because of the layoffs and cutbacks, "We are struggling to see why people view this as a tough vote. We view this as a pretty common sense vote. We really think (the layoffs) will have the most catastrophic impact on education that we have seen since the Great Depression."
Critics say the Education Department already received $100 billion in economic stimulus funds and hasn't spent it all of it, so why should Congress approve more?
"Congress should not add to the nation's burgeoning public debt while states are still sitting on funds that were provided 15 months ago," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas.
Department of Education officials said that most of the unspent stimulus funds couldn't be used to prevent layoffs because they are obligated to other programs.
Education Department spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya said the administration expects Congress to approve the emergency funds after the Memorial Day recess.
But a powerful force over the outcome could be the sour political mood, across the country and on Capitol Hill. A USA Today/Gallup Poll this week said that even as the public was growing optimistic about the economy, anger at the country's direction and incumbents was extremely high.
With a pivotal election in five months, lawmakers in both parties are operating on high political alert. A range of issues could be affected and there will be few hands across the aisle.
"We now cannot compromise because each party will react negatively to someone who wants to work with the other side," Cleaver said.