The sharp division between the Obama administration and key congressional Democrats over education policy and priorities may never have been more clear than it was Thursday night when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut $800 million from key administration initiatives to help pay for an effort to avert teacher layoffs.
The legislation—which the White House has threatened to veto—takes aim at three of the administration’s most-prized education priorities. Most notably, it would cut $500 million from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, which rewards states for making progress on certain education redesign initiatives.
It also would cut $200 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund, which doles out grants to support pay-for-performance programs, and $100 million intended to help start new charter schools. The TIF received $400 million in fiscal year 2010, plus $200 million in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus package passed last year. The charter program received $265 million in federal funding.
The jobs measure passed as an amendment to a military spending bill that had already been approved by the Senate. The amendment was approved on a vote of 239 to 182 late Thursday, with one member voting present. The vote generally split along party lines.
The money cut from the education programs would go toward a $10 billion fund aimed at helping states keep what congressional supporters say would be an estimated 140,000 teachers on the job and toward providing nearly $5 billion to help close a major shortfall in the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students gain access to college.
The $10 billion would be a significant decrease from the $23 billion that Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, initially sought to stave off school staff reductions. Conservative Democrats balked at the $23 billion price tag and demanded that the sponsors make other cuts to cover the cost.
The administration strongly supports the goal of averting layoffs, but wants Congress to find another way to pay for it, Peter Cunningham, a spokesman for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said earlier this week.
But Rep. Obey, the House Appropriations Committee chairman and the author of the bill, made no apologies for the education offsets he chose, which were part of a broader package of $16 billion in cuts to pay for the jobs fund, and other new domestic spending.
“The secretary of education is somewhat unhappy,” Rep. Obey acknowledged during floor debate. “One of the secretary’s objections, evidently, is the fact that last year in the stimulus we provided him with a $4.3 billion pot of money to use virtually any way he wanted to stimulate educational progress—$4.3 billion. He has spent a small amount of that.”
Even if this legislation cuts $500 million, “that still leaves him with $3.2 billion that he can spend any way his department wants. ... The secretary is somehow offended because he only has $3.2 billion to pass around,” Rep. Obey said. “To suggest that we’re being unduly harsh is a joke.”
Rep. Obey’s staff also released a memo to reporters, explaining that the proposed cuts would be for new grants and that no program would lose existing funds because of the reductions. The memo said that Rep. Obey placed a higher priority on saving teachers’ jobs than on allocating new, education redesign-oriented grants. And the memo stated that the programs could see their funding restored in better economic times.
But President Obama made it clear that he wants Congress to look to funds other than his signature education initiative—and that’s he’s willing to reject the entire jobs package if they don’t choose another funding source.
“The President believes that we need to keep teachers in the classroom, and we have worked with Congress to find a way to pay for it. But the President also feels very strongly that we should not cut funding for Race to the Top, one of the most sweeping reform initiatives in a generation,” Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House, said in an e-mail.
The administration’s objections to the bill infuriated Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers.
“The department was all for saving jobs until it was their pet programs or pet projects that have to share in some of the pain,” she said Thursday. “I’m very upset. You have an immediate, well-documented harm to children, because of budget cuts.”
Both the AFT and the National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union, preferred the $23 billion version of the jobs bill that did not raid other pots of education funds. But with that bill no longer an option, the unions support the bill the House approved.
Ms. Weingarten added that the programs slated for cuts “are limited pots of money, they’re not going to be spread evenly, whereas the education jobs fund goes to all states and all districts.”
But some advocates who support policies such as expanded charter schools say there is more riding on the outcome of the bill than just funding.
“If the money ends up being rescinded, it will be a major setback for the reform community,” said Andrew Rotherham, a co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit organization in Washington that works to improve student achievement.
It’s clear that the administration is aware of what is at stake since its statement on the bill is “very strongly worded, especially for this crowd,” he added.
At least one of the 15 Democrats who voted against the bill—Rep. Jared Polis, of Colorado—cited the education redesign offsets as the reason for his opposition.
“There’s strong support in our caucus for both reform and resources, and the two should not be delinked,” Rep. Polis said in an interview. Otherwise, it could “jeopardize” the coalition needed to get the jobs legislation passed, he said. He said there appears to be strong support for identifying other offsets among members, particularly those whose states are actively competing for a Race to the Top grant.
The measure will now move to the Senate, which is not expected to take it up until mid-July. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a former Denver schools superintendent and an ally of the administration on education policy, and other members are working to identify alternative ways to pay for the jobs package.
Meanwhile, state education officials who have already filed their applications for the second round of the Race to the Top competition, which will be allocated by Sept. 30, are angry about the proposed cut.
“Reducing Race to the Top funding would be an affront to the states and districts who have, at great risk, enacted legislative and policy changes designed to dramatically improve student outcome,” said Paul G. Pastorek, state superintendent of education in Louisiana, which placed 11th in the first round of the competition.
Earlier this year, Tennessee and Delaware were awarded Race to the Top grants totalling $600 million.
Staff Writer Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week