Obama's education program faces $500M cut despite veto threat

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010; 12:39 PM

House Democrats have challenged President Obama's education agenda, approving a bill that would slice funding from his flagship school reform program despite a White House veto threat.

The war-funding bill the House approved late Thursday included a provision the Obama administration strenuously opposed: a proposed $500 million cut to the president's $4.35 billion Race to the Top reform contest.

Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of Appropriations Committee, said the cut is necessary to free up money for a new $10 billion fund to help save more than 100,000 education jobs at a time when states and local governments are facing major budget challenges.

The jobs fund and about $5 billion for Pell grants for needy college students were included in the war spending bill on a vote of 239 to 182 that largely followed party lines. That vote, coupled with another key procedural vote of 215 to 210, sent the bill to the Senate, where further negotiations are expected.

The administration supports the $15 billion in education spending but is resisting the cuts in the school reform program that Obey proposed to help pay for it.

The lure of winning a share of Race to the Top funds has led states across the country to enact laws and regulations meant to spur innovation in schools. Some have eased limits on charter schools. Others have taken steps toward teacher performance pay. The contest was created through unusually broad spending authority Congress granted Obama in the 2009 stimulus law.

Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have repeatedly touted Race to the Top as a groundbreaking initiative to shake up low-performing schools. Tennessee won $500 million and Delaware $100 million in March in the contest's first round. Now the District of Columbia, Maryland and more than 30 other states are vying for a share of $3.4 billion in reform aid. Race to the Top intends $350 million to help states design achievement tests that align with new academic standards.

But the administration's ambitions for the contest could be curtailed under the action the House took Thursday night.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Obama hopes to persuade lawmakers to make changes to preserve Race to the Top and $300 million in education reform funding that is in jeopardy.

"It would be shortsighted to weaken funding for these reforms just as they begin to show such promise," the White House said in a statement before the House vote. The statement added: "If the final bill presented to the president includes cuts to education reforms, the president's senior advisors would recommend a veto."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, replied in a statement: "It's deeply disappointing that a Democratic administration would threaten to veto a jobs bill because paying for it would require a negligible cut from its new pet programs. We understand the administration wants to protect its favorite programs for future disbursements, but we need to protect kids and this generation of new teachers now."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company