Cherine Akbari was looking forward to a second year as a social studies teacher at Northeast High School in Oakland Park, Florida. “I had found a job that I was really good at,” she recalls. “I loved making history interesting for students.” But on May 6, she became one of the 1400 first and second year teachers in Broward County that were being laid off.
“It was the end of Teacher Appreciation Week. I was given a nice embroidered rain jacket … and a pink slip.”
It couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“I had just bought a house, and had moved into it five days before being laid off. And now I’m worried about losing it. Even with collecting unemployment, the cost of my mortgage plus my bills means I’m losing money each month.”
Like the many public school educators who have lost their jobs over the past year, Akbari’s future in the teaching profession may hang on the passage of the American Jobs Act, the Obama administration’s $450 billion job creation program. High on the list of the bill’s provisions is $30 billion to prevent the layoffs of up to 280,000 teachers and rehire tens of thousands more and $25 billion to repair and modernize 35,000 schools,
“Pass this jobs bill and thousands of teachers in every state will go back to work,” President Obama told Congress on September 8. “While they’re adding teachers in places like South Korea, we’re laying them off in droves. It undermines our kids’ future and ours, and it has to stop. We have to put our teachers back in the classroom where they belong!”
Akbari travelled to Washington DC this week to talk about the jobs bill with her representative, Ted Deutch, and Florida’s two U.S. senators, Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson. She was joined on Capitol Hill on Wednesday and Thursday by two fellow educators and NEA members, Stephanie Walter of Ohio and Eric Wolgemuth of Washington. All three met with lawmakers and their staffs to lobby for quick passage of the bill.
Walter had taught English for 17 years at Jefferson County Joint Vocational School in Amsterdam, Ohio, before budget cuts forced the district to lay off teachers in May. Walter’s family relied primarily on her income and her current job as a substitute teacher only brings in a fraction of her previous salary. Now she is substitute teaching and earning about one quarter of her previous salary. She and her husband, who works in construction, worry that their income is not enough to raise their two children.
“I just want my job back,” Walter said.
Eric Wolgemuth, a science teacher at Gig Harbor High School in Gig Harbor, Washington, considers himself a “success story” of the stimulus package passed by Congress in 2009. Wolgemuth was told after his first year teaching that there wouldn’t be a place for him at the school the following year. But he was rehired once the money from the stimulus helped alleviate the strain on the state’s budget.
“I’m an excellent example of how the President’s first stimulus worked,” Wolgemuth explained. “Our district had major RIF’s before the bill and none afterwards. They didn’t have to cut me or any of the other new teachers.”
Wolgemuth, Walters and Akbari hope their stories will help lawmakers see past the partisanship and understand the consequences of inaction: middle class Americans facing long-term unemployment and the damage laying off teachers does to students and public schools.
“My message to my representatives is simple,” Akbari said. “I am not a budget percentage or an unemployment statistic. I am a teacher, and all I want is to go back to the classroom and my students. You can do something. So here is my story. This is what I am going through.”
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