The White House is locked in a standoff with Democratic leaders in Congress over funding for school reforms, as deficit concerns and Afghanistan War politics collide with an education priority for the Obama administration.
President Obama is threatening to veto the $80 billion war funding bill approved in the House on Thursday if the final bill includes proposed cuts to the administration's "Race to the Top" education reform competition.
The House bill -- which would pay for the 30,000 additional troops ordered to Afghanistan -- includes roughly $15 billion in emergency education funding to prevent hundreds of thousands of teacher layoffs and fund Pell Grants. To pay for it, however, the House proposed cutting $800 million from the Obama administration's current education reforms.
"The administration is more than willing to work with the Congress to pursue fiscally responsible ways to finance education jobs; however, these rescissions undercut programs that have already received applications from more than three dozen States," said the statement of administration policy released Thursday.
"It would be short-sighted to weaken funding for these reforms just as they begin to show such promise. The administration urges the House to include education jobs funding in a version of H.R. 4899 that does not rescind education reform funding. If the final bill presented to the President includes cuts to education reforms, the President's senior advisors would recommend a veto," the administration said.
The White House now finds itself at odds with top Democrats in the House, who support using money tagged for "Race to the Top" to pay for immediate education needs.
"It has been suggested to us that the Secretary of Education is somewhat unhappy because of the offsets that we have required in order to pay for this additional funding," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, during the House floor debate on Thursday. "I would suggest there is nothing wrong with providing the Secretary a modest amount of funds to promote educational change. God knows we need it. But to suggest we are being unduly harsh is a joke."
In first round of the "Race to the Top" competition the Education Department awarded $100 million to Delaware and $500 million to Tennessee. The House bill would reduce the $3.4 billion remaining for the second round of the competition by $500 million.
Massive teacher layoffs due to budget shortfalls and waning stimulus funds are expected to have a dramatic impact on students: come next fall students may face larger class sizes, fewer after-school and summer programs, and the elimination of certain subjects -- such as art, music, or advanced placement classes.
Bill Would Cut Funding from Obama's "Race to the Top" for Education Reform
"This vote will ensure our teachers remain in the classrooms and our students don't lose a year of learning. We will not allow our children's education to become a casualty of the state of the economy," said Rep. George Miller, D-California, Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, in a written statement. "These are responsible, targeted investments that will create and secure jobs, and keep our promise to our nation's children.
Teachers' unions, which lobbied hard for the emergency education funding, have also spoken out against the administration's threat to veto the bill.
"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," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Thursday.
Including the education cuts reflects the political reality facing Congressional Democrats, who must govern with an anti-war Democratic caucus and an anti-spending opposition. House Republicans are supportive of the war effort, but opposed attaching additional domestic spending to the bill. Democrats on the other hand, were swayed to support the supplemental because of the unrelated funding, which many viewed as a chance to revive their jobs agenda.
Looking ahead it's unclear if the President will face the same kind of opposition in the Senate, which must approve the House legislation for it to become law. A group of Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, have aligned with the president to oppose the education cuts in the House bill.
"The proposed education cuts are unacceptable," wrote thirteen Democratic senators in a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye on Friday. "Choosing between preserving teacher jobs and supporting vital education reforms is a false choice and would set a dangerous precedent. By reducing promised funding for these important reforms, Congress would be pulling the rug out from under the efforts of thousands of communities around the country working to improve their schools."