Obey’s axe hovers over Obama's $1.3B education program

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey is taking on the White House over President Obama’s Race to the Top education program.

Obey has proposed a 40 percent cut to the White House’s $1.35 billion 2011 request for Race to the Top — a budget allocation for which Obama personally pleaded.

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This is the second conflict this month between Obey (D-Wis.) and the White House over money for the program, which awards federal grants to states that adopt performance-based policies for their public schools.

At Obey’s urging, House Democrats earlier in July passed a supplemental spending bill that would use about $500 million in Race to the Top funds left over from last year’s stimulus to save teacher jobs. Obey’s move prompted a rare veto threat from Obama, who backed the teacher fund but also sought to protect his education initiative.

The supplemental bill will be considered this week in the Senate, where senior Democrats who are more supportive of Obama’s reform programs are looking for different offsets to create the teacher job fund.

In Obey’s 2011 appropriations proposal for the departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services, Race to the Top was allocated $800 million, which was less than what Obama had wanted.

“The bill tries to strike a balance between maintaining broad-based federal assistance to schools and schoolchildren and advancing efforts to reform public education,” Obey said in a statement.

The 2011 spending bill was reported out of an Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday.

Obey, who is retiring at the end of the year, has been a vocal skeptic of Race to the Top. Unlike broad-based education programs such as Title I grants for low-income schools and special education assistance, only a select few states would win Race to the Top awards. Obey is proposing a 3 percent increase for the Title I program and a 4 percent increase for special education aid for 2011, which is slightly more than the administration had requested.

Obey has also noted that Race to the Top received $4.35 billion in the $862 billion stimulus, much of which has yet to be spent. Only two states — Tennessee and Delaware — have won Race to the Top grants so far.

Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have made education reforms a top priority. At an event in January, Obama pressed for the $1.35 billion extension of Race to the Top, calling it a model for the rest of the federal government. The administration said the Race to the Top competition has led 48 states to commit to rigorous national performance standards and prompted some states to enact laws making it easier to form charter schools.

“By rewarding some of these states submitting applications today, by extending the Race to the Top for states, by launching a Race to the Top among school districts and by applying the principles of Race to the Top to other federal programs, we’ll build on this success,” Obama said in a speech at a school in Northern Virginia.

The president and Duncan have proposed expanding awards next year to individual school districts that undertake reforms such as basing teacher pay on student performance.

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Unlike the clash over the supplemental, the White House and House Democrats appear willing to find middle ground on the 2011 funding levels.

An Obama administration spokesman said policymakers are faced with tough budget choices for next year, when the deficit is expected to remain above $1 trillion, and are trying to ensure there are enough resources to fund the best reform proposals.

“Race to the Top has driven unprecedented education reform across the country, and we look forward to working with the Congress to help continue this successful program,” said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the Department of Education.

Education reformers had concerns Obey would provide little to no funding for Race to the Top after trying to downsize it earlier this month.

Obey’s attempt to balance funding for reforms with more traditional programs is winning support from teacher unions, which have also questioned the Race to the Top approach.

“We fundamentally believe that the government’s role through federal funding is to be a partner to all states, so we’re truly investing in all children’s successes and futures, instead of making states have to compete,” said Kim Anderson, the government-relations director for the National Education Association.