How Congress Keeps Screwing Up Education

A first-grade teacher in Vallejo, Calif., works with students. Schools across the country are struggling with deep budget cuts. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

For more than 40 years, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the third-ranking member of the House, has been a fiery and highly effective legislator. Any history of how the country avoided another depression must include Obey, who shepherded the $787 billion Recovery Act through Congress last year with great skill (and no earmarks). He has been an inspiring antiwar liberal dating back to Vietnam and a rare man of conscience in Washington.

But Obey, who is retiring at the end of the year, is in danger of going out as a water carrier for the teachers' unions—the man who gutted President Obama's signature program on education, Race to the Top.

At issue is a $10 billion bill (down from $23 billion) to help states prevent devastating teacher layoffs. (The House approved the bill after this column was written on Thursday.) Without the money, we'll see larger class size, four-day school weeks in more areas, and about 100,000 lost jobs, which in turn will strain services and harm the economy. As if the politics weren't byzantine enough, the anti-layoff money has been attached to a bill funding the war in Afghanistan. This was meant to make it easier to win the support of war supporters, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now has to deal with House liberals who like the money for teachers, but not for the war.

House Democrats generally favor the bill (Republicans almost unanimously oppose it; they're apparently oblivious to layoffs in their districts), but the Blue Dog conservative Democrats necessary for passage want what in Washington are called "pay-fors" or "offsets." In other words, they insist that the bill not add to the deficit, which is suddenly the sexy issue in town.

Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, holds the purse strings, and this week he announced his plan for offsets. He cut from a wide range of agencies to find the $10 billion, including the departments of agriculture, energy, and commerce; the EPA; and the Army Corps of Engineers (though as a good liberal, he angrily fended off a White House proposal to trim food stamps, which has become a gargantuan program).

Obey couldn't exclude the Department of Education from the budget knife, but he chose the wrong places to cut: $500 million from Race to the Top, $100 million from the charter-schools expansion, and $200 million from the teacher incentive fund. In other words, he's slashing the president's innovative programs instead of taking on more entrenched interest groups defending their slice of the pie in other parts of the government. These are the folks with "strong interests and weak claims"—much weaker on the merits than the education reformers who have already been successful in driving major accountability improvements. (On Thursday, the White House threatened to veto the House version of the bill over the issue.)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn't help matters when he submitted alternative "cuts" in his department that weren't truly cuts—they didn't pass muster with the Congressional Budget Office, the official referee that determines whether various budget decisions actually reduce the deficit. Now Duncan is poised to introduce other cuts, still unspecified.

Meanwhile, Obey's education cuts would undermine the reform agenda that Obama told me (in an interview for my book The Promise) is one of his "proudest achievements." For Race to the Top, where states compete for federal grants based on how much accountability they introduce into the system (which has already leveraged impressive reform without any money at all), it would mean that states that have already submitted applications assuming certain funding levels would be eligible for $2.9 billion instead of $3.4 billion.

In January 2009 Obey already reduced Obama's early reform proposal from $15 billion to $5 billion. That was out of $100 billion in the stimulus bill for education, most of which went to prevent state and local teacher layoffs last year. To simplify the math, Obey wants to cut from the terrific 5 percent of education spending devoted to exciting reform proposals, not the 95 percent that went for other things.

"We're very concerned," says Peter Cunningham, Duncan's spokesman. "We think it's a big mistake. These are the wrong offsets." The president is said to be disappointed in Obey's plan and prepared to cut other education programs to pay for the anti-layoff plan.

Obey was in high dudgeon when I spoke with him Wednesday night. "I know some of the ed guys are bitching, but who the hell do they think put it [reform money] in the budget in the first place?" he asked. Even so, Obey made it clear he's no fan of Race to the Top, which he called "walking-around money," "a luxury," and, before backing off, even echoed the teachers' unions description of it as a "slush fund."

"Obama may be a miracle man, but he can't change the money [realities]," Obey said, his voice rising. "They better recognize who their friends are because so far they aren't! Who has taken more bullets and received less gratitude? Why the hell do you think I'm quitting?" (Obey recently announced that he wouldn't seek reelection, after 41 years in the House.)

It may all be moot anyway. The effort to stop layoffs isn't going anywhere in the Senate. "They can't pass a two-car funeral over there," Obey said. "Anyone who thinks we're gonna get a single Republican vote is smoking something illegal." He put the odds of Congress providing money to state and local governments to prevent teacher layoffs at one in 10.

The best way to improve those odds would be to tie the money for teachers to reform of the seniority system. This is something that would get the attention of Republican senators like Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Lindsey Graham. But after taking on the teachers' unions with Race to the Top, Obama has decided to go easy on the unions when it comes to challenging seniority rules.

How disappointing. Rigid "last hired, first fired" rules are a disaster for schoolchildren. They mean that across the country, teachers of the year will be pink-slipped simply because they are young. Yep—some of our very best teachers will be driven out of the profession. Meanwhile, older, incompetent teachers will be kept on. That's unconscionable. We now know that having a bad teacher two or three years in a row in the early grades all but dooms disadvantaged children.

With a little imagination, there's a grand compromise available: money to prevent layoffs in exchange for a requirement that seniority no longer be the only factor in determining layoffs (it could continue to be one of four or five factors). But according to an administration source, this was apparently considered and rejected by the president without any serious effort to determine if it could win enough Republican votes in the Senate. (White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel disputes this account.) It would take action to change collective bargaining agreements in some state legislatures, but this was true of portions of Race to the Top and proved to be a surmountable barrier.

The brutal truth is that teachers' unions don't care much about protecting young, great teachers (often union members, but less influential ones) who will get laid off soon. Instead, the unions and their lackeys in Congress and state legislatures will go down fighting for older teachers, even if they're lemons of the year.

By the way, this is a perversion of the American labor movement. Who went to the union barricades in the mid-20th century chanting "Last hired! First fired!"? No one. Seniority systems might make some sense on assembly lines, but have no place in education.

But Obama and the Democratic Congress have apparently decided that an election year is the wrong time to continue their historic and highly commendable challenge to the teachers' unions.

Tackling seniority "messes up their Christmas present to the teachers' unions," says Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust. That present was symbolic anyway. Without a bold bid for the support of moderate Democrats and Republicans, no bill will emerge. The stranglehold of the teachers' unions on the Democratic Party, loosened a bit with Race to the Top, is back in place, asphyxiating the careers of the terrific young teachers who the country needs most.

Jonathan Alter is also the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.