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Testimony on the effects of the federal stimulus package on New York City public schools
Testimony of Randi Weingarten, UFT President, , before New York City Council Economic Development Committee
February 9, 2009
Good afternoon, and thank you for allowing us to address this critical issue.
I must say that I am distressed that we have to be here today. With so much at stake and the economic news getting worse every week, most New Yorkers — and the rest of America — were hopeful that a federal economic stimulus package would have been approved weeks ago, and certainly by now.
The stimulus package is very much needed, and the amounts that are in both the Senate and House versions are larger than anyone has ever envisioned. Yet the times are extraordinary as well.
So today we are urging our elected representatives in Congress to put politics aside in order to approve a package that will help cities and towns across the nation avoid the direst consequences of the current economic crisis. Our House members have been terrific, and our senators are fighting for us, as Senator Schumer has said countless times.
As President Obama said last week, this is not a game. He did his part by proposing a package that provides a solid foundation on which Republicans and Democrats should be able to build some type of consensus.
The House of Representatives already approved a package, and late Friday the Senate approved its version, which drastically cut funding for education, including the fund that would stabilize schools and avert Draconian cuts. It also cut funds for school construction. That is a major concern for us.
Let me say up front, we at the United Federation of teachers find it very distressing that the Senate version cuts about $60 billion from education.
It starts by cutting $40 billion, or about 23% — from the funds targeted to help states avoid drastic education cuts and teacher layoffs. The Senate version does not clearly enable the city to use any of the money to offset state or city budget cuts, meaning more than half of all city public schools would face reductions of up to 16% next year.
The Senate version also eliminates almost $20 billion in construction aid for schools and colleges and cuts new aid for the Head Start early childhood education program by $1 billion.
You already know that many city schools are already struggling to cope with high class sizes and overcrowded schools in many areas. Elimination of these funds will only make things worse for our students and their teachers.
The full impact of the stimulus bill on New York City schools will be determined shortly as the Senate and the House work out their differences.
In the meantime, hundreds of New Yorkers — concerned parents and educators — will board buses tomorrow to travel to Washington to let our voices be heard on this matter. We are going to meet with our representatives in Congress to urge them to ensure that our schools are protected and get the resources they so desperately need by approving a stimulus package closer to the House version.
As you know, we have been pushing for a tripartite solution to the current challenges facing education. In addition to passage of a federal economic stimulus package, it would include progressive revenues — as opposed to tax hikes and fees that hurt those least able to afford them — and responsible spending cuts that do not damage core public services, including direct services to students.
We will lobby for Congress to approve a stimulus package closer to the House of Representatives version. Under that best case scenario, about $1.153 billion in funding would be restored, but that still would leave New York City with a cut of $43 million. As a result, according to the city Department of Education:
- About 660 schools would see a gain of about 1 percent.
- But 480 schools would see a cut up to 2 percent.
- And 300 schools would realize a cut in funding of 2 to 4 percent.
In announcing his proposed city budget plan for the coming year, Mayor Bloomberg said recently that the city public school system would have to lay off more than 14,000 educators — or close to 20% of our teachers — if it does not receive the additional aid he is seeking from Washington and Albany. In fact, he seemed to target teachers for 80% of his proposed reduction in the municipal workforce.
That scared virtually all of our first, second and third-year teachers into thinking they might not have jobs in September. In addition to being a crushing blow to students and parents, it would effectively say to anyone interested in teaching here, “Don’t bother. Education is not a priority here.”
The Mayor is right to push for as much state and federal aid as the city can get. But we don’t need to scare people who are already feeling very uncertain about their futures in this global economic crisis. And our educators aren’t the only ones worried because parents know that every time a teacher is laid off it amounts to a direct service cut to children.
Thankfully, last week state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver provided a ray of hope when he pledged that he and other leaders in the state Legislature would work with Governor Paterson to ensure that teachers are not laid off and that classrooms are protected.
But the actions of the state and the city depend squarely on what happens in Washington with the stimulus package. As President Obama said, we have to let Congress know that the people’s business cannot wait. I’m sure you agree as do we.