Teachers Face Personal Economic Collapse

By Cynthia McCabe

Time is running out for Sherry Driscoll, a special education teacher in Winchester, Mass., who learned last month that she will be laid off at the end of this school year.

She has three children and is the sole breadwinner for her family. They live in a rental house and that monthly bill competes with her crippling student loan bill for attention. “I have no savings and no idea how I will care for my family,” Driscoll says.

In her spare time, the eight-year veteran tutors children, whether their parents can afford to pay her or not. “I am an educator,” she says. “Today I am confronted with a strange reality and that is, ‘What will I do if I am not a teacher?’ How will my family survive?”

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of educators find themselves wondering the same thing. Their houses head toward foreclosure, stomach-knotting bills and debts mount, expenses like health care become a luxury. Once, these were the problems facing only their low-income students. Now these problems are theirs.

At least 125,000 educators will be laid off this year without passage of the Keep Our Educators Working Act. Introduced last week by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), it would provide $23 billion for the Education Jobs Fund. The Fund’s ability to save and create scores of education jobs – from pre-K to post-secondary professionals – is a key component of stimulating the economy and furthering economic recovery.

There are 16 original co-sponsors joining Harkin on the act, but without broad support from their Democrat and Republican colleagues, this crucial aid will not reach the teachers growing increasingly panicked about what waits in less than eight weeks.

“I am losing a means to provide for my children,” says teacher Maureen Therese of Netcong, N.J. Her husband lost his job when his company closed last June. With her job goes all health benefits and their home. Therese says she and her husband have excellent credit, pay their bills on time, and live in a small home. They don’t take vacations or live above their monthly budget.

“I have always been practical and responsible. Sure, it would be nice to have a bigger house, a nicer car, but we have appreciated what we have and what we can afford,” Therese says. “But now that is very quickly being taken away from us, even though we have nothing to do with why the state is in financial trouble. I am still in disbelief that this could happen.”

Stories like Driscoll and Therese’s are pouring into NEA’s activism Web site EducationVotes. They come from across the country, from educators focusing on a variety of grades and subjects and specialties. They come from veteran teachers and from those who just recently entered the profession thinking they’d be preparing their students for a career, not fighting for their own.

Lisa Higginbotham of Marietta, Ga., never imagined that four years into her career she’s be wondering if there would even be a fifth.

“It is likely that I will soon join the masses in need of unemployment benefits,” Higgenbotham says. “I will have to withdraw my daughter from preschool, and my husband’s salary alone will not be able to cover our mortgage.”

Another young educator, literacy assistant Kara Grossman of Millstadt, Ill., lives with her parents but faces her own set of pressures — student loan payments and health insurance premiums she can’t afford if she is laid off, as she was recently told be her principal she will be at the end of the year.

There is an economic domino effect when teachers young and middle aged lose their jobs, houses, and spending power and incur overwhelming debts.

“I don’t know if lawmakers realize this, but many teachers who will be getting laid off are not new to the profession,” says Jamie Fournier of Las Alamitos, Ca. “We have several years of teaching experience resulting in many of us buying homes. If we lose our jobs, many of our homes will go into foreclosure. This is not good for the economy. The loss of jobs means less revenue, more foreclosures, and more unemployment.”

She’s absolutely right, says Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, a non-profit public policy research organization. In her state, nearly 1,000 teachers and education support professionals currently face layoffs. Those are educators who won’t be shopping, aren’t improving their homes, can’t pay childcare providers — the list goes on and on.

“Historically teaching has never been a profession that anyone got rich from but it’s been a solid, middle-class occupation that people could enter and know they’d be doing good work, have a fulfilling career and have some security,” says Hanauer. “If they’re constantly subjected to layoffs they’re not going to have a sense of security. It will have a negative impact on the quality of the profession. We want people to view teaching as a viable occupation that they want to invest time in to train for.”

Schenectady, N.Y., teacher Dan Bernard has a master’s in education and is certified to teach in his state but he’s been forced to substitute teach for three years because of budget cuts. This year’s deeper cuts mean he won’t even have substitute jobs next year.

“Every time a teacher is laid off, the life of a dedicated professional is disrupted,” Bernard says. “Families are disrupted. Plans are put on hold.”

And the negative impact on classroom achievement — school districts in California are already predicting as many as 45 students in some classrooms next year — means the next generation of economic boosters is already at risk.

“If we invest in children now they do better in school, they are more likely to complete higher education and they do better in the workforce,” says Hanauer.  “By disinvesting in the people who teach children we’re throwing all that out and we’re going to regret that later.”

If they are to keep the nation’s economy moving forward and keep themselves out of the clutches of the recession, Bernard and his education colleagues across the country need action from the U.S. Senate and they need it now. That’s why they’re sharing their stories of deeply personal financial problems and talking to their representatives through NEA’s Legislative Action Center and participating in NEA-organized tele-town halls around the country this month.

Says Bernard, “I have a family to feed and support and cannot wait for someone in Washington to realize that cutting education is no way to balance a budget.”

Photo by Angie McCormick/Georgia Association of Educators