White House: Let Food Stamps Pay for Teacher Jobs

More madness in the administration's zeal for its testing-centered education reform.

By Julianne Hing Jul 19, 2010

Rep. David Obey from Wisconsin, who’s been trying to create a $10 billion emergency fund to cover national education budget shortfalls and save more than 100,000 teachers’ jobs, opened up about the intraparty conflict his effort has sparked.

Obey spoke with the Fiscal Times last week, and shared the Obama administration’s suggestions for where to find money for teachers’ jobs:

Well, it ain’t easy to find offsets, and with all due respect to the administration their first suggestion for offsets was to cut food stamps. Now they were careful not to make an official budget request, because they didn’t want to take the political heat for it, but that was the first trial balloon they sent down here. … Their line of argument was, well, the cost of food relative to what we thought it would be has come down, so people on food stamps are getting a pretty good deal in comparison to what we thought they were going to get. Well isn’t that nice. Some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.

The whole fuss began on July 1, when Obey–who’s supposed to be taking a victory lap before he retires later this year–won a resolution on a war-spending bill that moved a total of $800 million away from well-funded Race to the Top and other White House reform programs to help save an estimated 100,000 teachers’ jobs this fall. The Obama administration, in a move of striking pettiness, responded with a veto threat for any bill that dared take money away from Race to the Top.

Race to the Top is an ongoing competitive grants program that hands out money to states that can prove they’re sufficiently committed to the Obama administration education reform agenda. The White House won $4.35 billion for the program’s pilot year and after one round with only two winning states (Delaware and Tennessee), it still has $3.6 billion in unused funds. And so the Obama administration’s whining seems terribly unnecessary–besides the fact that without teachers inside classrooms, there won’t be anyone to carry out the reforms the Obama administration is so intent on implementing.

While President Obama’s got the support of a pack of other Dems led by Sen. Evan Bayh, he might be sensing a shifting tone in the debate. Last week, he dispatched Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his director of the Domestic Policy Council, Melody Barnes, to speak to reporters about the current intra-party fuss. Both Duncan and Barnes were heartily supportive of the teachers’ fund, to a point.

"We don’t have to make a choice between reform and making sure that teachers will stay in the classroom," Barnes said on a phone conference with press, adding that if funding for teachers’ jobs came at the expense of funding for Race to the Top, the charter school fund and other education reform initiatives, she and Duncan would recommend a veto.

David Dayen from Firedoglake discusses why the Obama administration can’t have it both ways:

Incidentally, increased class size, which comes with the firing of teachers, LOWERS THE AMOUNT OF MONEY states can be eligible for under the RTTT program. So denying the education jobs fund by vetoing the bill over a $500 million cut to RTTT (less than a 20% decrease) actually lowers the amount states can receive. It’s a cut EITHER WAY, and arguably a larger one if the education jobs money doesn’t go through.

Barnes and Duncan could not explain why a $3.8 billion dollar Race to the Top program would somehow be less successful than a $4.3 billion dollar program.

Education Week reports that Rep. David Obey helped set aside $800 million for the reauthorization of Race to the Top in 2011, and that bill passed a House appropriations subcommittee on Thursday. It’s a tad short of the $1.35 billion Obama requested for Race to the Top’s 2011 budget–and we’re likely to hear some fussing from them on the topic–but it’s a very mature gesture from Obey, who’s taken plenty of heat from the Obama administration.

He had plenty of other choice words for the administration in his Fiscal Times interview:

The secretary of Education is whining about the fact he only got 85 percent of the money he wanted …. So, when we needed money, we committed the cardinal sin of treating him like any other mere mortal. We were giving them over $10 billion in money to help keep teachers on the job, plus another $5 billion for Pell, so he was getting $15 billion for the programs he says he cares about, and it was costing him $500 million [in reductions to the Race to the Top program]. Now that’s a pretty damn good deal.

It blows my mind that the White House would even notice the fight [over Race to the Top]. I would have expected the president to say to the secretary, "look, you’re getting a good deal, for God’s sake, what this really does is guarantee that the rest of the money isn’t going to be touched."

Apparently, the president did no such thing.

Photo: Creative Commons/talkradionews