Saturday, December 05, 2009

3 ways education spending could IMMEDIATELY help create jobs

As the president and Congress discuss how to create jobs, they seem to be circling around a lot of the usual ideas: tax cuts for businesses that hire, subsidies and incentives for green energy, and building contracts for infrastructure and the like.

What we haven't heard much about is DIRECT government action to create jobs. The problem with creating public jobs for things like renewable energy is it could conceivably compete with private sector businesses already doing the same thing. This would not be the case if education were used to both remove some workers from the job force and create additional jobs.

The quickest fix would be to change the structure of college financial aid, so more kids could go to college full time. I teach community college and most of my students have to work full time to pay their way through school, which means they will be lucky to get their bachelor degree by thirty. If those kids (and older students) got enough financial aid to go to school full time, they would free up low end jobs for others.

We could also create jobs by hiring more K-12 teachers to dramatically reduce class size, especially in poorer communities. Even a crappy teacher can do a passable job if the class is small enough, and even the best teacher will struggle if a class is too big. We could also hire more classroom aides to help teachers, and people to provide after school programs to keep kids out of trouble. That would not only creat jobs but pay more dividends in the long run than the right wing "education reform" snake oil of merit pay and privatized charter schools.

The third way to create jobs with education is less obvious. At community colleges, the vast majority of instructors are part time, have no job security, receive few or no benefits, and are paid as little as a quarter as much as their full time peers. To a lesser but still significant degree, the same thing happens at four year public universities. Consequently, two things happen that distort the academic labor market:
  1. Part time faculty teach more classes to make up for low pay or have a second job in the private sector.

  2. Full time faculty are pressured to teach more than a full time load so administrators can get the maximum value for the benefit dollars they are forced to spend on the lucky few.

  3. Here in California, colleges have the added incentive of being allowed to pay these full time faculty LESS than their regular pay for these extra class (the opposite of the usual overtime rules requiring "time and a half" pay)
A slight change in these labor practices would create more academic jobs:
  • Require that three-quarters of college faculty be full time and/or all facutly be paid on one pay scale, so part time faculty teach fewer classes (freeing some up for someone else to teach) or quit their jobs in the private sector (freeing them up so someone else can be hired).
  • Ban full time faculty from teaching more than a full time load, freeing up their excess classes for someone else to teach (and giving them more time to be available to students).
The federal government could cause these changes with both a carrot and stick--the carrot of funding for the extra full time positions, and the stick of making federal funding contingent on adopting these labor practices.

President Obama announced a community college initiative last summer that would spend money on buildings, technology, and online curriculum, but the jobs effect of all of those would be temporary at best. The real change has to be how the instructors who show up to teach in those shiny new buildings but don't know how they will pay their rent at the end of the semester are treated.

All three of these would do our country more good than any contract to build a road or bridge, or a tax cut that will just be used to sock more money away in a Cayman Islands account.