The U.S. Department of Education is pushing back against a congressional plan to trim key priorities of the Obama administration—including the Race to the Top Fund and money for pay-for-performance programs and charter schools—to help cover the cost of a $10 billion effort to save education jobs.
The proposal, unveiled late Tuesday by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would skim $500 million from Race to the Top, the administration’s $4.35 billion signature education reform initiative, which was created last year under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Another $200 million would come out of the Teacher Incentive Fund, which helps districts create pay-for-performance programs. That fund received $400 million in fiscal 2010, on top of $200 million from the federal economic-stimulus program. And the measure would cut $100 million appropriated last year to help finance new charter schools.
“We think that these reform programs are needed to move [student progress] forward,” Peter Cunningham, a spokesman for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. He said the programs are “very important and driving a historic amount of change.” And he noted that there is “huge demand” for the funds. “We think jobs and reform are both needed,” he said.
The Education Department supported a version of the education jobs bill, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, earlier this year that would have provided $23 billion to stave off a predicted 300,000 layoffs through emergency spending, without cuts to other programs.
But that effort ran into resistance from moderate Democrats and Republicans, who balked at its impact on the federal deficit. To assuage their concerns, Rep. Obey and congressional leaders identified some $12 billion in offsets to help cover the cost of the Education Jobs Fund and other new domestic spending that would be folded into a broader bill financing military spending.
But Secretary Duncan doesn’t support the cuts to the administration’s education initiatives.
“If Congress is determined to find offsets, we will help them do that, but these are not the right ones,” Mr. Cunningham said.
Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, who has opposed efforts to provide federal funding to help shore up state finances and avoid teacher layoffs, was much sharper in his criticism.
“Democrats have shown their true priorities, jumping at the chance to discard education reform to salvage an unpopular bailout for the education establishment,” Kline said in a statement released Wednesday.
There is still $3.4 million remaining for the second phase of the Race to the Top competition, which provides grants to states committed to certain education redesign initiatives. Earlier this year, Tennessee and Delaware were awarded grants totaling $600 million. The department has also designated $350 million for grants to help states develop common assessments.
The department would have discretion over whether to take the offset from the state grants or the assessment fund, said Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the department. It is considered highly unlikely the grants already slated for Delaware and Tennessee would be affected. But state officials hoping to snag a Race to the Top grant during the second phase of the program, to be awarded by Sept. 30, expressed dismay.
“As the former director of our State’s Department of Revenue, I have empathy for those looking for funding sources for much-needed programs,” Elizabeth Carpentier, the deputy state superintendent for innovation and support at the South Carolina Department of Education, said in an e-mail. “But as someone who’s lived with Race to the Top (and not much else) since August 2009, I’m not in favor of cutting that pot at this point.”
South Carolina’s leaders had “serious discussions” about whether to compete in Round 2 of the Race to the Top grant program, Ms. Carpentier wrote. The amount remaining in the award pool was a “significant factor” in the state’s decision to commit resources to its second-round application, especially given that the department had recently laid off staff, she wrote.
And, over the long haul, Ms. Carpentier is worried that having fewer Race to the Top winners could ultimately slow the momentum for the changes the program is seeking nationwide. “The country needs a ‘critical mass’ of states working on these reforms if we are going to get the incredibly hard work done,” she wrote, specifically citing common standards, related assessments and materials, effectiveness measures, and changes to teacher evaluation systems. “It’s going to take more than one state to get these systems up and running effectively. Reducing the funding pool reduces the number of awards and makes overall success with key reforms less likely.”
South Carolina was selected as one of 16 finalists in the first round of the competition and ultimately placed sixth, putting the Palmetto State in a potentially strong position to win a grant in Round 2.
Amy Wilkins, the vice-president of the Education Trust, an organization in Washington which advocates for poor and minority children, worried that the cuts, if enacted, could have long-term implications for the relationship between states and the U.S. Department of Education.
“The federal government can’t break faith with all the states that have worked hard and made the changes” to better compete for Race to the Top, she said. If part of the money is diverted, “it undermines the credibility of this administration on education issues forever, and that is not good for anyone.”
Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, which is the managing partner of one of the three consortia vying for $350 million in Race to the Top money to design new assessments, said, “What hits me is that we’re in difficult fiscal times, but cutting the reform money isn’t the way to go about getting better results or more accurate measures of results. … Both of those are really important to do, particularly at this critical moment in education reform.”
Moderates Push Back
Education advocates expect moderate Democratic senators who have supported the Obama administration’s education priorities, such as Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Michael Bennet of Colorado, to push back against the plan.
“We know we need to keep teachers in the classroom with our kids, and we also know that the status quo on public education simply won’t do,” Sen. Bennet wrote in an e-mail. “It cannot and should not be a choice between teachers and reform—we can and should support both. This short-sighted decision will deny local communities the opportunity to come together to think differently about education and improve outcomes for our kids from the ground up.”
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., circulated a memo urging his colleagues to ask Rep. Obey to reconsider the cuts.
“If we are to meet the President’s goal of becoming global leaders in college graduates by 2020, we must rethink and reinvent our approach to education by moving forward with bold reforms,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, the proposed cuts represent a major step backward.”
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, who has championed charter schools and performance pay, said in an e-mail that he would have rather seen the education jobs money financed as emergency spending, with no offset.
But he did not address the specific education programs targeted for reductions.
“We have an emergency on our hands—teachers’ jobs and our children’s future are at stake. This initiative should have been funded through emergency spending,” Rep. Miller said. “Instead, Congress has determined this spending must be offset and is taking the steps it has to take to ensure our teachers are in their classrooms and our students don’t lose a year of learning.”
Kate Cyrul, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said “the unobligated [Education Department] funds from the stimulus will be used for important purposes, including maintaining education jobs. Sen. Harkin would prefer not to be moving money from one pot to another – the Recovery Act is working, and we should let it do what it was intended to do.”
Supporters of the programs targeted for cuts are already beginning to mobilize.
R. Brooks Garber, the vice-president of federal advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, said he is urging members to begin calling their senators and representatives to oppose the cuts. He noted that the cuts could end up costing charter school teachers their jobs.
“We understand the sentiment to try and save education jobs, but we do not think this is the right place to take the funding,” he said in an interview. He estimated the money on the chopping block could help finance as many as 6,000 jobs annually at charters nationwide and help finance up to 200 new schools per year.
And he said the cuts would stall education redesign efforts. “There’s no discounting that this would be a substantial step backwards for the reform movement,” Mr. Garber said.
For their part, the two national teachers’ unions, which have championed the effort to provide education jobs funding to states since late last year, emphasized the importance of the bill’s main objective: keeping teachers employed.
“We support Chairman Obey’s bill to keep educators working and protect core education services,” said John See, a spokesman for the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, in an e-mail. “We preferred the larger emergency bill, which didn’t cut education programs like the Teacher Incentive Fund and Race to the Top. We were not involved in what the offsets would be, or even told about them in advance.”
Marc Egan, a lobbyist for the National Education Association in Washington, which has also strongly supported the effort to thwart layoffs, said the 3.2 million-member union continues to back the education jobs legislation.
“We’re looking at the bigger picture,” Mr. Egan said. He noted that educators around the country have already received pink slips and that many districts anticipate staff reductions and other cuts. The programmatic cuts proposed to pay for the effort are a “temporary trimming,” not a complete elimination of those programs, he said.
“You can’t do reform without educators in the classroom helping our students,” he said.
Assistant Editor Catherine Gewertz contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Opposes Plan to Trim Key Initiatives