Lawmaker wants to shift some 'Race to the Top' funds to prevent teacher layoffs

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; 12:40 PM

A senior House Democrat proposed Wednesday to slice President Obama's Race to the Top fund and other school reform initiatives to help pay for a $10 billion measure to save education jobs.

The proposal by Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would eliminate about $500 million from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund and another $300 million in other education programs through an amendment to a supplemental war spending bill.

The amendment, pending in the House Rules Committee, is still a long way from becoming law. But Obey's proposal crystallized a debate among Democrats about federal aid to schools. Some say it should be spread as widely as possible to alleviate local budget cuts. Others argue that a significant portion should be set aside for states and schools that are the most innovative.

Race to the Top is the most prominent education initiative so far in Obama's presidency. The lure of funding has prompted many states in recent months to draft plans to expand teacher performance pay and take other steps to improve schools. The District, Maryland and more than 30 other states are applying for the grants. Tennessee won $500 million and Delaware $100 million in March in the competition's first round.

Ellis Brachman, an Obey spokesman, said the appropriations chairman believes the most important issue facing public schools is the threat of massive layoffs across the country. Estimates have ranged from 100,000 to 300,000 education jobs in jeopardy, although those figures might be questionable. Many states in recent weeks have imposed furloughs and other spending cuts to save teaching jobs.

"Mr. Obey has said, 'When a ship is sinking, you don't worry about redesigning a room, you worry about keeping it afloat,' " Brachman said. "He is not opposed to education reform. But he believes that keeping teachers on the job is an important step."

The Obama administration signaled that it will fight hard to preserve Race to the Top funding.

"We think that jobs and reform are both needed to keep our economy strong -- short term and long term," said Peter Cunningham, assistant education secretary for communications. "We should not be forced to choose between these two things." Cunningham added that if Congress is determined to find spending cuts to create an education jobs fund, "we'll help them. But these are the wrong ones."

Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that recruits teachers and promotes teacher effectiveness, predicted that state education leaders would be enraged at cuts to Race to the Top.

"Remember, they went and sold these reforms on the basis that there was significant funding to be gained," Daly said. "It's going to raise a lot of controversy. It's a bait and switch."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company