I rise today to speak in support of the Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act.
Rarely is our economy discussed without mention of the more than 14 million Americans that are currently out of work and searching for a job, but this statistic is only really the beginning of the story. Two years after the recession officially ended or at least was at a place of stability, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 9.1%, and when you factor those that are working part time because they can't find a full-time job and those that have stopped working altogether, that number quickly climbs. In my home state, it is two points better at 6.9%, but there are still too many people out of work.
It's my firm belief that the role of Congress is to promote the interests of the American people, and the American people have said loud and clear that we need to focus on initiatives that are about jobs, private sector jobs, jobs that pay people so they can support their families, jobs that strengthen our economy.
At a time when enormous budget shortfalls plague our states, many states have been forced to make tough choices, including cutting the jobs of those individuals on our front lines, law enforcement and educators. In Minnesota, we have seen more than our fair share of crises in recent years, but we have also seen the value of effective emergency response.
We all witnessed the critical work of public safety personnel during the minutes and hours following the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. That was just a few blocks from my house, Mr. President. During that emergency, the Minnesota first responders reacted swiftly and effectively, and they were aided by a strong local public safety network. What we saw that day was a true show of American heroism, a window into the courage, skill and selflessness that first responders practice day in and day out. They didn't run away from this major bridge collapse, eight-lane highway in the middle of the Mississippi river, they ran toward it. They dove in and out, in and out of that water, rescuing people, dozens and dozens of cars in that water, and thanks to their selfless efforts, we lost way too many lives, literally hundreds were saved because of their work.
These men and women dedicate their lives to protecting families, supporting our children and protecting the public. They perform critical jobs in our communities, jobs we cannot afford to lose. I saw it in a smaller town up in northern Minnesota. There they had a tornado that literally flattened a mile of their town. I was standing in wreckage, a high school where the bleachers were a block away, where there was nothing left of a public swimming pool.
You know what? Not one person died in that town, even though this was a completely residential neighborhood. You know why? They got their siren out early. A teenage life guard at that pool who had a dozen kids got their parents there within 10, 15 minutes and the remaining kids she got in a basement across the street. When I visited that town, a few days later, hugged a man whose entire agriculture business had been flattened, he saved his employees in a safe that he always joked since he didn't have a basement they could go in the safe.
The thing I remember most was the mayor and sheriff and how despite people, despite having their houses completely flattened, losing everything they owned in the world, all they could do was hug those officials and cry because they knew the planning they put in place, the acts of the sheriff, police and emergency system saved their life. That is first responders at their best. That is public servant at their best.
That's why we need to pass the Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act which would support the hiring and retention of career law enforcement officers and first responders. I know that state and local budget cuts forced thousands of police officers and firefighters off the beat. This bill provides $5 billion to put police and firefighters on the job by creating or saving thousands of first responder jobs across the nation through competitive grants to state and local governments.
The Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act also saves or creates jobs through critical investments in education. A good education should be the basic right of every child. I know you know that in Maryland, Mr. President, as I know it in Minnesota. It is one of the very best investments that we can make in our future as a nation.
My mom taught second grade until she was 70 years old. She had 30 second graders in her public school class. We lost her last summer. But what I will never forget are all of those students who are now grown up that came to the visitation, came to the funeral and told me all those stories. I'd always known that my mom dressed up as a monarch butter fly when they had the unit on metamorphosis. She would wear a butterfly outfit and wear a sign that said “To Mexico or Bust”.
What I didn't know was that after that school day would be done each year, she would go to the local grocery store in that outfit and shop. When I first heard that story, I thought that was pretty funny and something she would do. What I finally realized is she went to that store, because I met the parents of this young man, he had taken her class in second grade, he had some pretty difficult disabilities and he went on, graduated from high school and his job was to bag groceries at that store. She would go back every year to see that kid in her butterfly outfit so that he would remember that class. That is a public servant, Mr. President. That is what teaching is all about.
It is something bigger than yourself. Given the enormous budget shortfalls across the nation, states and local school districts have been forced to cut back on education programs and services. Often laying off needed teachers and other critical staff or raising additional revenue to cover the shortfall.
As a result, two-thirds of states were forced to slash funding for K-12 education programs and services and are now providing less per student funding than they did in 2008 and 17 states. In my state alone since 2008 we have lost 1,200 education jobs. Cuts like this hurt our children, but they hurt our communities too.
We have to compete on an international stage, Mr. President. We are going up against countries that are actually upping their education funding, countries that are making sure their kids are learning incredibly difficult concepts in science and math and technology. We are not going to be able to accomplish that if they don't have schools in which they can learn and work, if they don't have teachers that have the expertise that can teach them these difficult ideas.
That's why we need to pass the Teachers Act which would provide support for nearly 400,000 education jobs and offering a much-needed jolt to state economies. It would also provide funding to support state and local efforts to retain, rehire and hire early childhood, elementary and secondary schoolteachers.
It's a time when we recognize that educating our children is a shared responsibility. Americans overwhelmingly support funding for teacher and first responders jobs. One poll showed that 75% of Americans support providing funds to hire teachers, police officers and firefighters. Passing this bill isn't the right thing to do just because it's popular. It's the right thing to do because it will have a positive impact on our children.
And as we know, we pay for this bill. And we pay for this bill in a way that shares the responsibility with those that can afford it the most. This bill will move our economy forward without adding to the federal deficit.
With our economy struggling and 14 million Americans still out of work, the people in my state want Congress to put the politics aside and come together to move our economy forward and ensure that our communities stay strong and that our children remain safe. That's what they want.
It's time to step up and show some leadership here. I believe we need to bring this debt down. I'm one that believes we need to bring it down by $4 trillion in ten years and I believe there is a way to do it with a balanced approach that doesn't do it on the backs of these kids in school, that doesn't do it on the backs of our people who need protective services, who need our police, who need our firefighters.
What would we have done when that bridge collapsed, if there hadn't been firefighters and police officers there ready to dive in and save people? What would we have done if there hadn't been emergency workers ready to take them in? What would we have done in Minnesota when that tornado hit if we didn't have a proper public siren system in place? Hundreds of people would have been killed. What we have done for that had kid I talked about with the disabilities if my mom hadn't been his teacher and cared about him and went back to visit him again and again and again?
These are people that devote their lives to public service, Mr. President, and we have to show America that Washington isn't broken, that instead we're willing to put the politics aside. We're willing to do something smart on the debt and bring it down to the place where we need to bring it. But we're going to do it with a balanced approach. I urge my colleagues to vote for this important piece of legislation. It's the decent thing to do and it's the right they think to do. -- and it's the right thing to do. Mr. President, I yield the floor.