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Obama's School Jobs Plan: Good Enough, or Too Much?

Last night, President Barack Obama unveiled a proposal that he says will fix dilapidated schools, and keep more teachers employed in them—a major source of worry in many districts, which have been hemorrhaging jobs over the past few years.

Let's take a closer look at the president's plan, by the numbers.

• Obama says his proposal would save 280,000 school jobs over the next two years. That's roughly the same number that have been lost since August of 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, citing federal data. They estimate there have been 293,000 lost jobs since then.

• Total cost of the Obama's school jobs plan: $30 billion. For some perspective, That's three times the size of the school employment-focused measures in the Education Jobs Fund, an emergency measure that Congress approved and the president signed last year. Backers said that plan would save 160,000 positions.

• An additional $25 billion would go to paying for renovation of school facilities. Many district leaders have said they've been putting off purchases and building projects during the recession/post-recession period, despite the cheap cost of borrowing these days. More than half of school districts deferred maintenance last academic year, and 60 percent anticipated doing so this year, according to a 2010 survey.

The administration is arguing that school districts will face an additional wave of unemployment in the near term, without federal help. On Friday, Melody Barnes, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told reporters that school districts could be facing 280,000 job losses—in just the coming academic year, alone.

One of the intriguing aspects of Obama's proposal is that much of the jobs-saving money would presumably flow to states that have been making major cuts to school funding—reductions that, in turn, have almost certainly resulted in layoffs. Nearly half of the states, for instance, have made cuts in prekindergarten or K-12 spending in fiscal 2012, according to one estimate. In many states, that budget-cutting has come at the direction of Republican governors and lawmakers, who have pledged to limit the size of government and not raise taxes.

Obama is not proposing that the school aid be tied to states' acceptance of the president's favored education policies, as he did during the federal Race to the Top competition. (The administration has also said waivers to states from the No Child Left Behind Act will be based on the states adopting certain various school policies.)

Critics of the stimulus and the Education Jobs Fund have said that they were aimed more an appealing to teachers' unions than solving economic problems or improving education. Congressman John Kline, a Minnesota Republican and the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, voiced similar objections to Obama's new plan.

"Common sense tells us that putting the federal government in the business of school construction will only lead to higher costs and more regulations," said Kline, as reported by my colleague Alyson Klein. "It also tells us that another teacher union bailout will not ensure a quality education for our children."

Others disagree. Kevin Carey, the policy director of Education Sector, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, said the administration's proposal simply focuses on creating and saving jobs where a big chunk of jobs have been cut—and that's in government, and school districts specifically, as state and local officials have chopped spending.

The emphasis on job creation, above all, is made clear by the fact that they're not demanding education policy changes in exchange for federal aid, Carey said.

"The logic of providing aid to state and local government is good," he said, addiing: "It's more of an economic program than an education program. It's about getting money out quickly and efficiently to stanch the loss of public sector jobs."

Saving teaching jobs means saving middle-class jobs, and that can bolster the economy, Carey argued. Many of them have families and ties to communities where they work. There are a lot of obstacles to educators finding another job after being laid off.

For those teachers, "you're not just going to pack up and move across the country," Carey said.

Of course, whether Republicans would support any part of Obama's school plan remains to be seen. Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy and a former Democratic congressional aide, told me he thinks it's unlikely Republicans will back the president's education proposals, but if they do, it would most likely come about as part of a bipartisan "superdeal," which addresses the GOP's goal to cut government spending over time. A lot of school employees—and victims of school layoffs—are presumably hoping some sort of deal comes together.

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