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Bill to save teachers' jobs would slash reform programs

Thursday, July 1, 2010; A14

ONLY A SMALL portion of the $100 billion the federal government directed to states in school stimulus spending funds last year was directly tied to reform. But even those relatively small amounts have had a sizable impact as states rushed to make needed changes to compete for Race to the Top dollars. Yet Congress is considering taking precious dollars from this and other reform programs of the Obama administration to fund a suspect effort to preserve education jobs.

Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wants to take money set aside for reform initiatives to help fund the $10 billion Keep Our Educators Working Act. To help come up with spending offsets to advance the long-stalled bill, Mr. Obey proposed cutting about $500 million from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, $200 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund that supports creation of pay-for-performance programs and $100 million from the Charter Schools Program. The plan, unveiled Tuesday, set off howls of protests from advocates for education reform, who see it as major setback to their efforts. Mr. Obey, though, was unapologetic, telling us that reform is rendered meaningless when massive numbers of teachers are in danger of losing their jobs.

We have made no secret of our skepticism about this jobs bill -- as opposed, for example, to an extension of unemployment benefits, which Congress should approve without delay. The jobs bill's stimulative effect has been exaggerated, as has been the need for it. When the bill was first advanced, its advocates warned about looming layoffs of some 300,000 teachers. However, school districts across the country are finding other cost-cutting ways -- freezing pay, increasing class size, consolidating administrative functions -- to save jobs. Mostly, though, we were suspicious of throwing yet more money into stopgap measures to sustain an educational status quo that is not working. Why, for instance, would the federal government want to give additional funds to a system that blindly allows effective teachers to be laid off but keeps those who do poor work but have been on the job longer? Why wouldn't the federal government insist that any new federal money be conditioned on districts making reforms in how teachers are evaluated or compensated?

Instead, Mr. Obey would penalize the precious few programs that do foster needed change. If his measure is approved, fewer states will get funds to reward high-performing teachers who work with at-risk students, there will be less money to help effective charter networks like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) and there will be no incentive for states to enact reforms. That Mr. Obey's proposal would pull back money intended to fund Race to the Top applications that have already been filed can only be seen as undercutting any credibility U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan would have in coaxing state officials to make the often-hard political decisions of education reform.

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