On the same day that President Obama sent the American Jobs Act to Congress, he stood in the White House Rose Garden with AFT members and others who would be helped by his bold plan to create jobs and put money back in the hands of middle-class families.
Watch video: AFT members urge passage of jobs bill.
The bill includes $30 billion to prevent layoffs of teachers and other educators, and another $25 billion to repair and modernize public schools. The president said the bill will help keep as many as 280,000 educators on the job. "All across America," he said, "teachers are being laid off in droves—which is unfair to our kids, it undermines our future, and it is exactly what we shouldn't be doing if we want our kids to be college-ready and then prepared for the jobs of the 21st century. We've got to get our teachers back to work."
Baltimore special education teacher Terrell Williams, an AFT member at the Rose Garden event, says the plan to modernize obsolete schools is especially vital. Williams, a teacher at Holabird Middle School and member of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said he recently completed summer school duties in classrooms without air conditioning—rooms that sweltered in 106-degree heat on many days—and he worries about the message that such conditions are sending to students: "We tell kids that education is the key to their future, and then we contradict ourselves by sending them to schools without working fountains or even doors on the stalls in bathrooms."
As President Obama put it: "We can't expect our kids to do their best in places that are literally falling apart. Every kid deserves a great school—and we can give it to them."
Another Baltimore school, Wolf Street Academy, had to eliminate its music program for the 2010-11 school year because of budget cuts, and then drop its art program this year. "You're denying kids the well-rounded education they need and deserve when you cut music and the arts," says Maura Colleen Farrall, a science teacher at the school who participated in the White House event. "I'm going to contact my congressional representatives and let them know I expect them to support this bill," she adds. AFT members Jason Chuong from Philadelphia and Carla McCoy from Baltimore also represented the AFT.
(More than 150 members already have answered an AFT Voices question asking how they think money from the American Jobs Act should be put to work in their communities. Read their responses and add your own.)
Later in the day, AFT members had the opportunity to participate in a conference call with Vice President Joe Biden, who explained the benefits of the legislation, how the administration plans to pay for it, and why it's important for educators to let their members of Congress know how important it is to pass the legislation as soon as possible. More than 2,000 educators joined the call, which was part of outreach to the AFT by the Obama administration to discuss the proposal the president outlined in his Sept. 8 speech to a joint session of Congress. AFT president Randi Weingarten joined Biden on the call and spoke to the participants.
"We know how badly you're hurting," Biden said, acknowledging the tens of thousands of educators who have lost their jobs this year. "This plan is designed to put people back to work, and the major part is investment in education."
In addition to direct support to school districts and states to prevent layoffs, the school modernization portion of the bill will bring billions in future savings by making schools more energy efficient—and put thousands of people to work. The average school is 40 years old, Biden said, and we spend more on energy for schools than on computers, textbooks and other materials combined.
Noting that teachers are the quintessential members of the middle class, the vice president highlighted other elements of the legislation that will put badly needed money in middle-class pockets. One part of the proposal would make it easier for people paying high interest rates on their mortgages to refinance those loans; cutting two percentage points from a mortgage would save the average homeowner about $2,000 per year. The president also is proposing to cut in half the payroll tax that employees pay, which would mean an additional $1,500 more for the average taxpayer to spend.
"It's about being fair" and setting the right priorities, Biden said, outlining some of the tradeoffs. We can hire teachers or give tax breaks to oil companies that are already doing very well; we can modernize schools or let hedge fund managers pay a lower tax rate; and we can keep cops and firefighters on the job or give tax breaks for corporate jets. "There are a lot of ways, without unfairly raising taxes, that we can pay for all the stuff we're talking about," he said.
Obama and Biden both echoed something the president said when he spoke to Congress about his jobs plan. Some congressional Republicans have been quoted as saying they don't see any point in passing any large-scale legislation the president wants until after the 2012 elections, which are more than a year away. "The American people don't have the luxury of waiting 14 months for Congress to take action," Obama said. "Folks are living week to week, paycheck to paycheck. They need action. … It's not OK at a time of great urgency and need all across the country." [Dan Gursky, Mike Rose, Roger Glass/video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]
September 13, 2011