It’s been a week since the House approved a funding measure pushed by Rep. David Obey to save teachers’ jobs by taking $500 million away from President Obama’s Race to the Top education reform initiative, and the chatter about it is yet to die down. Obey’s effort and the must-pass war spending bill to which it was attached have scooted along to the Senate, but Obama has already threatened to veto any bill that dares touch his signature education reform, setting up an uneasy conflict between congressional Democrats and the White House.

Here’s the big picture: the ongoing recession, the accumulated impact of chronic underfunding of public education and the competing priorities of two wars have taken their toll on schools. Back in April, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin pushed an emergency $23 billion proposal to save thousands of teachers’ jobs for the upcoming academic year. That went nowhere. So Rep. David Obey stripped it to a bare bones package and attached it to the House’s war spending bill.

The Obey package would provide $10 billion to an emergency fund to keep 140,000 teachers on schools’ payroll and set aside $5 billion for Pell Grants, which are federal grants for low-income undergrads.

Obey found the money by skimming a bit off from Race to the Top, which is a competitive grants program that awards cash to states adopting the Obama administration’s education reform agenda. He took another $300 million from a charter school fund and other Obama education initiatives. The $800 million package now awaits review by the Senate when legislators get back from summer break next week.

The hullaballoo Obey’s measure creates would be more understandable if Race to the Top weren’t already so well funded. Obey’s cuts are relative pennies to the initiative. It’s headed into a second round of awards—just two states made it through the first round—and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has still got $3.6 billion to work with, on a pilot program. Race to the Top has also already been promised $1 billion for next year.

The Obama administration has long fought to characterize the controversy surrounding its brand of education reform, of which Race to the Top has become the flagship program, as one between stubborn defenders of the “status quo”—teachers and the unions that represent them—and those courageous enough for change. And the administration, seemingly eager to make a fight out of Obey’s resolution, promptly issued a statement last week:

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.

Why this openly confrontational stance? It’s just the wrong fight to have. Forget for a moment the fact that the reforms states are being forced to adopt as they compete for Race to the Top are built on a model of intense testing and privatization of schools. And put aside the fact that even Race to the Top’s champions hail it primarily as an attention-getter. The initiative has in fact received plenty of criticism from folks in Chicago, where Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tried many of these reforms before moving to DC, with little success to show for them.

We’re now used to seeing Obama’s willingness to openly take on not just teachers’ unions, but public school teachers everywhere. Obama’s education reform policies demand pay-for-performance programs that don’t encourage teachers so much as they punish those who don’t raise test scores. Under both Race to the Top and the proposed Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the re-re-named No Child Left Behind bill that’s up for renewal, teachers can be flat-out fired if their students don’t show test score improvements. At its core, these programs just end up blaming the country’s education woes on teachers, never mind the broader political and bureaucratic systems they work within.

What Obey’s doing is trying to make sure there are actually teachers available to implement the reforms Obama wants. Obey isn’t even anti-reform. He defended himself last week with what seems like common sense: “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.”

Photo: Getty Images/Scott Olson

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