Education cuts highlight Democrats' fight over Obama’s school reform efforts

Education cuts highlight Democrats' fight over Obama’s school reform efforts

The war and education spending bill passed by the House is exposing the raging debate within the Democratic Party over the Obama administration’s school reforms.

The House Democrats’ package that passed Thursday cuts President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPatagonia files suit against Trump cuts to Utah monuments Former Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report Eighth Franken accuser comes forward as Dems call for resignation MORE’s signature education program, Race to the Top, and other administration reform efforts by $800 million, using the savings to help offset the cost of more Pell Grants and a new $10 billion fund to save teacher jobs.

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama has threatened to veto a bill that includes those cuts. The White House and senior Senate Democrats have argued that money for the reform programs, which encourages schools to accept changes such as performance-backed pay for teachers, should be left alone.

The intraparty fight over school reform has been going on since Obama took office. The $862 billion stimulus, which Democrats were crafting even before Obama’s inauguration, included $4.35 billion for Race to the Top, despite the program having no track record on the national level. That number would have been higher if not for the protests of House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), a main architect of the stimulus who has questioned a program that benefits only a select number of states and gives the Education secretary wide discretion over how funds are disbursed.

That debate is now complicating passage of the supplemental spending bill that also includes $37 billion for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and appropriations measures coming later this year.

Obey on Thursday took to the House floor to blast the administration for trying to protect specific education programs when schools across the country are facing up to 300,000 education job layoffs. Only Tennessee and Delaware have been awarded Race to the Top funds so far, Obey’s staff has noted.

“More than half the country will never see a winning dime from that money,” Obey said, just hours after Obama issued his veto threat. “[There’s] nothing wrong with providing the secretary [of Education] a modest amount to promote it. To suggest we're being unduly harsh is a joke.”

Teachers unions have criticized Obama’s focus on Race to the Top and other programs that encourage schools to compete for funds. Instead, they’ve backed Obey’s efforts to increase resources for traditional education programs, such as Title I funding for low-income schools.

The National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest union, stayed out of the supplemental bill debate but will oppose Obama’s push for $1.35 billion more in Race to the Top funding in 2011, according to NEA Government Relations Director Kim Anderson.

“We fundamentally object to driving the majority of increases in education funding through a competitive model because it creates winners and losers,” Anderson said, noting that the rest of the federal education budget faces smaller increases or cuts. “For us, education funding should not be a jump-ball.”

Obama and Education Secretary Arne DuncanArne DuncanTrump administration is putting profits over students Chicago to make future plans a graduation requirement: report Top Education official resigned over dispute with DeVos: report MORE have pointed to the Race to the Top program as a centerpiece of their education policy, touting it as a way to encourage innovation and accountability at schools that have long struggled.

A group of Senate Democrats has sided with Obama and will seek to find other offsets for the teacher fund.

"In short, the proposed Department of Education cuts are unacceptable," wrote 12 Democrats and one independent senator in a letter on Friday. "Using these programs as offsets for teacher jobs presents us with a false choice between supporting teachers or supporting these critical reform efforts."

The group was led by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who has been a strong backer of the administration's reform efforts, and included Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats turn on Al Franken Minnesota's largest newspaper calls on Franken to resign Democratic senator predicts Franken will resign Thursday MORE (D-Ill.). The letter was addressed to Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinDemocrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood The Hill's 12:30 Report Distance education: Tumultuous today and yesterday MORE (D-Iowa), who championed the fund to save teacher jobs in the upper chamber, “would prefer not to be moving money from one pot to another,” said Harkin spokeswoman Kate Cyrul.

“The Recovery Act is working,” she added, referring to the stimulus. “And we should let it do what it was intended to do.”

Though Defense Secretary Robert Gates had asked lawmakers to pass the supplemental bill by July 4 or risk the military having to do “stupid things” in Afghanistan, the Senate won’t take up the measure until after it returns from this week’s recess.