WASHINGTON – Congress is moving rapidly just weeks before the start of the school year to speed billions of dollars in emergency education aid to states in hopes of reversing the layoffs of tens of thousands of teachers.
Some $10 billion in aid to school districts is set to flow after a 61-39 Senate vote Thursday — to be followed quickly by a House vote next week — in hopes that it will come in time for many school districts to reconsider teacher layoffs.
Thursday's vote was a hard-earned but partial victory for Democrats and President Barack Obama. Advocates said it could save the jobs of up to 300,000 teachers, police and other public workers.
The measure would provide another $16 billion to help states fund their Medicaid budgets — and therefore free money for other budget priorities such as avoiding tax increases and preserving the jobs of state employees. About three-fifths of state governments have already factored in the federal help when drawing up budgets for the ongoing fiscal year.
The vote caps months of effort by governors of both parties, public employee unions and others seeking to extend programs enacted in last year's economic stimulus law. That measure provided budget relief to states and local school districts hurt by slumping tax revenues as the U.S. economy has struggled to emerge from recession.
It's significantly less generous than both a version enacted last year and one passed months ago that stalled amid increasing worries about the budget deficit. Still, state and local officials are desperate for whatever federal help they can get.
"This is a huge crisis for us financially," said Carlos Garcia, superintendent of San Francisco's schools. "This would be a welcome relief for us so maybe we could hire back as many people as possible. Because if we really want to get out of this recession, people need to be working."
Garcia said the federal money could help the district rehire some of the roughly 300 employees it laid off this year or reinstate some of the four instructional days cut from the coming school year.
Advocates said the measure would stop the layoffs of perhaps 300,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees. Though scaled back, the bill also would salvage a victory for Democrats who have been unable to deliver most of the jobs help that they and Obama had planned.
"This is about saving jobs that are in immediate danger," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "It will allow us to avoid layoffs, service cuts or tax increases and it will make sure our children don't walk through the schoolhouse doors this September to larger class sizes and fewer subjects."
Republicans blasted the measure as a rerun of last year's economic stimulus bill, which has earned poor reviews among many voters as unemployment hovers near 10 percent nationwide. And they called it a giveaway to public employee unions, a key Democratic constituency, just three months before the midterm elections.
"Stop with the bailouts, tax hikes and special interest giveaways," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. "Stop inflating spending and postponing the day of fiscal reckoning. The American people are living within their means, and they expect Washington — and states — to do the same."
In New York, approximately $600 million in new education money would help schools avert more than 7,000 layoffs, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But to save those jobs, the state will have to allow school districts to reopen their budgets and teachers will have to be rehired quickly. That's a tight deadline even with jobs at stake.
The state Legislature will need to convene soon in special session because a high court has ruled federal funds must be appropriated by lawmakers, according to the state Education Department.
In Illinois, said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, the state had been facing as many as 17,000 teacher layoffs, including 2,700 in Chicago alone. Thursday's legislation would save almost 5,000 of those jobs.
"I wish it were more, but it is going to help," Durbin said.
Passage of the bill was assured after moderate Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine cast the key votes to break a GOP filibuster Wednesday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would call the House back into session next week to approve the measure to speed it to Obama.
The measure comes on the heels of successful efforts to extend unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless and to provide a payroll tax credit this year to businesses that hire the unemployed.
But the total jobs package has been significantly trimmed from earlier, ambitious designs to boost "green jobs," provide new funding for roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects, pay for a summer jobs program for disadvantaged young people and renew health insurance subsidies for the jobless.
The measure was financed through cutting other programs and raising taxes on some U.S.-based multinational companies.
Among the ways to pay chosen by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was a $12 billion cut to food stamps that would cost a family of four $59 a month beginning in early 2014. It would also cut $1.5 billion from an account funding renewable energy projects.
Most of the budget cuts won't be felt immediately, or, in the case of many rescissions of unused appropriations, at all. The aid to teachers, however, will flow swiftly.
Associated Press writer Terry Chea in San Francisco and Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y. contributed to this report.