A $23 billion payout to save thousands of educators' jobs faltered Thursday — perhaps for good — to election-year jitters among moderate Democrats over deficit spending and only lukewarm support from the White House.
The proposal's chief advocate in the House abruptly canceled a committee meeting to put the money in a war spending bill. Its lead sponsor in the Senate gave up trying to do it, acknowledging he lacked the necessary votes.
The developments jeopardized what progressives in Congress and some members of the Obama administration had described as a life raft for 100,000 to 300,000 teachers and other school personnel whose billions of dollars in stimulus salary subsidies run out this fall.
Outside the Beltway, educators said it wasn't clear how big a hit they would take if more federal money didn't come through.
"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 are in jeopardy there. The limbo, she said, wakes her up at night.
"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."
Holding down spending
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.
Obama's $862 billion stimulus bill bailed out slumping American companies and gave educators some $50 billion, but it also played a role in costing Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter his seat in Pennsylvania's primary election last week.
"We can't say, 'Oh, let's put this kid on hold for two years until the economy recovers," House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., 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. Some Democrats complained privately that the effort cried out for presidential advocacy. President Barack Obama did not request the money in his budget; Duncan seemed the only member of the administration making a case for it forcefully.
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.
Florida officials said they don't expect much fallout during the upcoming school year because the state is spending only half of its education stimulus money during the current budget year. The other half will be spent beginning July 1, according to the state's stimulus czar, Don Winstead.
Winstead said what happens after next year will depend on how much the economy and the state's revenue outlook improve, as well as what happens in Washington.
Elsewhere, local school officials said they were desperate.
Atlanta Public Schools, which has about 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," said district spokesman Keith Bromery.
Next door in Cobb County, which has 100,000 students, the district faces a $127 million deficit that likely will lead to cutting nearly 600 teaching positions. The cuts have led to protests by teachers, parents and others.