Gutting School Improvement to Keep the Lights On

Short-term pain relief or long-term improvement?  That seems to be the choice that is currently facing Congress, as the House debates how to fund “edujobs,” the federal relief necessary to supposedly save hundreds of thousands of teachers’ jobs in this difficult economy.

Earlier this month, Eduflack wrote on the edu-jobs issue and how Congress could get creative in finding the $23 billion needed to protect classroom jobs.  Since then, the edu-jobs issue has gone nowhere.  The U.S. Senate, in particular, seems to lack the fortitude to vote for additional spending, even it was to save the jobs of K-12 teachers.  So edujobs has just been left hanging, with no resolution in sight.
Until this week.  In the U.S. House of Representatives, Appropriations Chairman David Obey has offered plans to move $10 billion in edujobs dollars.  The full text of Congress’ spending plans can be found here, on the House Rules Committee website.  But since the release of the report language, it begged the question — where is Congress finding the money to offset the dollars being spent on edujobs?
It is a question that Alyson Klein over at EdWeek and its Politics K-12 blog has refused to let go of.  Now, Klein has the answers for us.  It seems that, to ease the short-term pain of school districts struggling to meet payroll, that Congress is ready to sacrifice some of its commitment to wholesale school improvement efforts.
According to Klein, much of the money needed to offset the spending for edujobs comes from cuts to existing school improvement efforts.  Chairman Obey and company are planning on pulling $500 million from Race to the Top, $200 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund, and another $100 million from innovation and improvement (which she reads as charter school moneys) to help fund the $800 million in budget offsets Democrats have promised.  
In response, Rep. John Kline (MN), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee referred to the move as exploitation, and said Dems were taking the first chance to “discard education reform.”    
So it begs an important question — is the short-term gain worth the long-term pain?  Is one year of supporting teachers’ salaries worth slashing one-eighth of the RttT pool?  Is it worth eliminating the $200 million increase that the stimulus bill originally gave to TIF?  And is it worth slashing charter dollars after we demanded that states change their charter laws and promote the establishment of more charter schools?
RttT, TIF, and innovation dollars are all long-term investments.  Cutting $500 million from Race, for instance, likely means at least three or four states that won’t be able to participate in the Phase Two program.  Those mid-sized states that could have taken a Race and done some real good with it over the next few years will now lose out.  All to cover salaries for the coming school year (and one coming year only).
What makes such a move dangerous is that this is stopgap; it isn’t a solution.  What happens next year when we need another $10 or $15 billion to help with teachers’ salaries?  And more importantly, what happens with plans to add new phases to RttT or i3?  Once these cuts to education reform efforts are made, it becomes near impossible to restore them.  Supporting teacher pay becomes a long-term obligation, with little opportunity in the near term to add new programs or expand competitive grant programs. 
Without question, it is important that our school districts figure out ways to pay their workforces, both this year and the years to come.  But should that maintenance mean sacrificing real efforts to improve our schools and their outcomes?  Do we really want to get into a position where we are choosing between paying teachers and improving student test scores?  And do we really want the federal government to become more and more responsible for paying salaries in our localities?
 

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