Senate Saves Race to the Top Education Program

In a surprise move, the U.S. Senate did something good Wednesday—it moved to prevent more than 100,000 teachers from being laid off this fall and restored funds for President Obama's signature Race to the Top education program.

The House, led by retiring Rep. David Obey, chose the wrong way to pay for the $10 billion needed to prevent the teacher layoffs. It cut $800 million from the president's prize program, which incentivizes accountability for performance and charter schools. Obama reacted firmly, threatening to veto a Democratic bill for the first time since he became president.

Meanwhile, Republicans in both chambers were happy to let all those teachers lose their jobs. The results would have been devastating not just for schools but for the country. Just what we need when we're trying to compete with China and India—four-day school weeks and teachers with 35 kids in a class.

Fortunately, Senate Democrats were able to grasp Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who gave the Democrats the 60 votes (plus one) needed to break a filibuster. Largely through the efforts of Sens. Evan Bayh and Dick Durbin, a coalition came together to save the president's cherished program.

Freshman Michael Bennet, a former school superintendent in Denver, was also critical. If there's any justice, it should help him in a tough Senate primary in Colorado, where last week he slipped behind challenger Andrew Romanoff in polls after Romanoff launched a barrage of untrue ads accusing Bennet of taking part in a scheme to "loot" a business. "While Romanoff was sliming Bennet, Bennet was in Washington savings teachers' jobs," said one prominent education reformer who backs Bennet in the Democratic primary.

Obama got personally involved in this bill, which threatened to undermine a program that he rightly calls one of the best he's launched. Instead of slashing Race to the Top, the White House and Senate Democrats found cuts elsewhere in the education budget and in energy programs that were having trouble spending the money they had (always a good reason to cut).

The lesson for Democrats is that you can't cut education reform to fund jobs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has summoned the House back into special session next week to vote on the bill, which also includes billions to help states with their Medicaid expenses.

I would have preferred a bill that included reform of the seniority system in schools in exchange for the money to prevent layoffs. But this is a victory for teachers, for their students, for the president, and for the forces of education reform in both parties.