Monday, July 12, 2010

OBAMA’S SCHOOL AID SHOWDOWN: The president is wrongly threatening to veto a school-aid package unless cuts to his Race to the Top program are eliminated.

LA Times Editorial

July 12, 2010 - All across the country, the most pressing need in schools right now is to keep as many teachers, janitors, counselors and librarians as possible. Less important: expanding charter schools and linking teachers' evaluations to their students' test scores.

So we're surprised by the tumult over a school-aid package approved by the House last week as part of a larger appropriations bill. It would provide $10 billion to keep as many school employees as possible in their jobs during the recession, but would do so, in part, by imposing some cuts on the Obama administration's key education initiative. Race to the Top, a $4.3-billion program that provides competitive grants to states that draw up reform programs in keeping with the administration's priorities, would lose $500 million. Two other incentive programs would lose a total of $300 million.

President Obama has threatened to veto the school-aid package unless the cuts to these programs are eliminated. But Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who inserted the aid package, included those cuts among many others to offset its cost, thus winning support from Republicans and conservative Democrats. Even with the reduction in its budget, Race to the Top would have billions of dollars to hand out. Would the president really undermine desperately needed school funding over a less-than-lethal reduction in the grant program's coffers?

Opponents of the cuts say that more money for schools won't help unless reforms are instituted. But the $10 billion doesn't represent "more" money; it simply makes up for — to a limited extent — devastating budget cuts that schools have suffered in recent years. And reforms will accomplish nothing unless schools can keep teachers in the classroom.

Of course, if Obey had seen Race to the Top as invaluable, he wouldn't have touched its funding. And here we agree with him as well. The concept behind the program is brilliant: Leverage a relatively small amount of money by using competitive grants as an incentive for states to embrace change. Dozens of states have drawn up new legislation and made new pledges in order to align with the administration's goals. But some of those goals are untested and others are too severe. We too believe that teachers' evaluations should have some connection to how their students score on tests, but are dismayed to see states win grants by promising to make those scores account for at least half of a teacher's performance. And though well-run charter schools have brought welcome new practices to public education, the jury is still out on whether charters improve educational outcomes as a whole. Just as important is the question of which charter schools work well; some perform significantly worse than public schools.

It's too bad that Obey's school-aid package doesn't include some reasonable accountability measures of its own, such as a requirement that states not lay off teachers strictly by seniority when doing so would hurt low-income and minority students, or that they begin drawing up plans for thoughtful teacher evaluations. But above all, let's keep teachers.

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