July 6 — 1:09 pm, 2010

Teachers’ jobs vs. Race to the Top?

"When a ship is sinking, you don’t worry about redesigning a room; you worry about keeping it afloat."

This is what Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said of "Race to the Top (RttT)" money he wants to reroute to save teachers’ jobs across the country. 

As a war funding bill winds its way through Capitol Hill, $23 billion of domestic spending has been tacked onto it. Ten billion of that domestic spending would go towards rescuing between 100,000 and 300,000 education jobs in debt-ridden states that will have to make painful cuts this year. 

How would Congress pay for that $10 billion of emergency education aid? Obey and other House Democrats have decided to cut nearly $800 million from three of President Obama’s flagship education reform initiatives:

In what amounts to a direct affront to President Obama’s ambitious education reform agenda, Obey and other Democrats want to use that $800 million to pay part of the $10 billion they say will save teachers’ jobs.  

The White House immediately threatened to veto any cuts to the Race to the Top contest, whose financial lure the administration strongly believes has catalyzed legislative education reforms in dozens of states. The administration further stated that it supports saving teachers’ jobs, but not at the expense of long-term reforms that could dramatically transform the country’s public education system.  A spokesman for David Obey responded: "He (Obey) is not opposed to education reform. But he believes that keeping teachers on the job is an important step."

Despite the threat of presidential veto, House Democrats voted to cut the $800 million from Obama’s favored education initiatives, reducing their size but not eliminating them entirely. Now the overall war funding bill has moved to the Senate, where Obama hopes to convince lawmakers to restore those funds to his three initiatives.

Though this internecine debate has been going on behind closed doors for months, rarely has it reared its head so publicly, and between such powerful figures of the party. Now, the debate is looking more like a legitimate ideological split over education funding within the Democratic Party, pitting traditional, pro-union Democrats like Obey against newer, pro-reform Democrats like Pres. Obama.

Why does this debate matter for education in Pennsylvania? First of all, the state budget is premised upon nearly $850 million from the Feds for Medicaid funding. If this money does not materialize, Pennsylvania’s budget faces a severe shortfall; significant cuts in education programs and jobs are likely to ensue. It’s possible that the emergency education aid that Obey is pushing in D.C. could soften that blow.

Secondly, Pennsylvania has submitted an application for round 2 of the Race to the Top contest. If Pennsylvania is one of the winners, some $400 million would flow into the state’s education system, nearly $100 million of which would come directly into Philadelphia’s schools. If the RttT coffers are cut down in size, the amount that Pennsylvania might obtain as a winner will be proportionally smaller. 

The fate of the state budget and education system is clearly intertwined with decisions made in D.C. It is worth our time to continue watching developments there.

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