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Community Colleges Seek Federal Dollars To Hold Off Job Cuts

WASHINGTON — With no end in sight to surging enrollments and funding that falls short of need, community colleges are asking Congress for more financial help to protect institutions from potentially damaging faculty and staff cutbacks.

“The capacity of our colleges is stretched to the breaking point, and the continued growth that we anticipate in the next two years and beyond cannot be met without adequate funding support,” said Marc Herzog, chancellor of Connecticut Community Colleges.

Speaking to a U.S. Senate subcommittee last month, Herzog said higher enrollments and the continued economic downturn have created a “crisis” that requires more federal action—chiefly, a $23 billion education jobs bill to shore up two-year colleges and other struggling educational institutions.

“Enrollments at the nation’s community colleges have surged dramatically,” he said, with full-time enrollments up 24 percent during the last two years. Yet, despite recent federal stimulus funding, Connecticut faces a $500 million deficit this year, with post-stimulus projections of a deficit of $4 billion within two years.

The 2009 economic stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, protected many education jobs, allowing states to backfill their education budgets. Colorado, for example, used stimulus funding to help blunt a 49-percent cutback in state funding for two-year colleges, Herzog told the panel. The same funding bill also prevented steep job cuts in other states but that funding will end soon—leaving hard-pressed states with few options.

“This country is about to face a massive wave of layoffs in our schools and institutions of higher learning that could weaken our economic recovery and cause serious damage to our education system,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Harkin has introduced, with 13 Democratic co-sponsors, the Keep Our Educators Working Act, modeled after the stimulus bill with $23 billion for state education budgets.

The short-term fix from the stimulus package cannot solve longer-term economic issues, which Harkin said is the main reason why more action is needed.

The new “bill is an investment in our kids, in our economy and in our future,” he added.

States also could use the funding to protect K-12 jobs, a chief reason why the Harkin bill has support from the National Education Association. The NEA projects that more than 150,000 educators could lose their jobs during the next three months as mounting state and local budget shortfalls take their toll.

The Harkin bill faces challenges. The House of Representatives approved a similar idea in a $150 billion jobs bill last December. But negotiations with the Senate scaled back that bill significantly, with both chambers agreeing only to $15 billion in tax credits and other less costly ideas.

The task for education groups is to convince more senators that the economic downturn is creating an expanding crisis for schools and colleges.

“We have an ailing economy, and education is the medicine,” said Dennis Van Roekel, NEA president. “Our educators are in our schools every day administering the cure.”                            

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