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Harkin Bill Would Provide Billions to Hire Teachers, Fix Up Schools

As the U.S. House of Representatives gets ready to approve a Republican budget for 2013 that would cut taxes and federal spending, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin is offering a countermeasure that would spend more money on things like education and workforce training, and eliminate some corporate tax breaks.

Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, is proposing a sweeping effort to "rebuild America's middle class," which contains several elements that most teachers and school districts will cheer. (Of course, given the political dynamics in Congress these days, no one should get his hopes up.)

First, his bill would provide $20 billion in formula grants to modernize, renovate, and repair early-learning facilities, K-12 schools, and community colleges.

Second, it would attempt to rebuild the ranks of public employees, which suffered when cash-strapped state and local governments had to lay off police, firefighters, and teachers in the wake of the Great Recession. His legislation would provide $60 billion total over three years to hire teachers. (That is more than the $48.6 billion State Fiscal Stablization Fund from the economic-stimulus package of 2009!)

Third, it would ensure the right to join a union, so that "all workers have a right to join together and stand up for fair wages and working conditions."

And fourth, it would set aside $2 billion a year for five years, through 2017, for grants to states to improve professional development for teachers so they are better prepared to teach college- and career-ready standards. This comes at a time when most states have adopted common standards, but are moving to the more-difficult stage of implementing them at the classroom level.

In a February speech at the Center on American Progress, Harkin foreshadowed the coming legislation. And specifically on professional development, he said: "Countries whose students outperform students in the U.S. have something in common: They strategically and systematically dedicate resources toward building the teaching profession. My bill will commit significant new funds to improve the preparation and support [of] excellent teachers, with the aim of ensuring that America's students graduate prepared for success in college and careers."

The National Education Association is definitely a fan of the legislation overall.

"Your bill will make sure students have the learning environments they need and deserve," the organization wrote in a letter today in support of Harkin's bill. And, it said, "We are pleased that your proposal creates a grant program to assist school districts in providing additional professional development opportunities for teachers as they transition to college- and career-ready standards. Teacher quality is the single most critical factor in maximizing student achievement."

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