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The Import of Obey Swinging the Ax at RTT

Getting away can offer perspective. Having just spent the better part of a month immersed in business abroad, I was following affairs back here mostly via notes, asides, and statements that sloshed into my Inbox. So it's shocking to "Straight Up" readers, I'm sure, that seen in that light, Rep. David Obey's "Keep Our Educators Working Act" didn't look great from six thousand miles.

When I left in early June, hardly anyone on the left was breaking ranks to voice concerns about the proposed teacher bailout (then Sen. Harkin's brainchild). However, Obey's "let's gut the administration's reform kitty" ploy put an end to that when he deliberately stuck his thumb in Ed Secretary Arne Duncan's eye by proposing to partially offset his $10 billion outlay through $800 million in cuts to Race to the Top, the Teacher Incentive Fund, and charter schools. Watching this move from afar, I flashed on Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, "'Well, I'm dashed. I'm really dashed. I positively am dashed, Jeeves.' And I was, too. I mean to say, a joke's a joke, but there are limits."

Let's be clear. Obey's "I need to slash $500 million out of Race to the Top" deal was symbolic--and a case of a hyper-annoyed Congressional bigfoot flipping the administration the bird. How do we know this? Because Obey said so. He conceded the proposal isn't going anywhere in the Senate. "They can't pass a two-car funeral over there," he told Newsweek's Jonathan Alter. "Anyone who thinks we're gonna get a single Republican vote is smoking something illegal." In fact, 12 Democratic senators (and one Independent) have written the Senate Appropriations Committee opposing Obey's proposal, and Obey has put the odds of Congress actually providing the money to prevent teacher layoffs at one in 10.

So, the whole exercise was a lesson in messaging. What was the message? As Obey said, "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 went on to blast Race to the Top, labeling it "walking-around money," "a luxury," and a "slush fund." Obey said, "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?"

Alyson Klein had more, with Obey observing, "The secretary of education is somewhat unhappy. ... One of the secretary's objections, evidently, is the fact that last year in the stimulus we provided him with a $4.3 billion pot of money to use virtually any way he wanted to stimulate educational progress." Obey said even if RTT is cut by $500 million, "That still leaves [Duncan] with $3.2 billion that he can spend any way his department wants... The secretary is somehow offended because he only has $3.2 billion to pass around."

Obey and the teacher unions signaled that they're ticked off at the administration, are sick of the DFER reform agenda, and don't much fear reprisal. Remember, Obey's not running for re-election in November, so the exercise looks a lot like frustrated congressional Dem leaders lashing out at an administration that's sinking in the polls and doesn't command a lot of love or a lot of fear on the Hill. Not a great signal for Duncan and the White House as they try to move on NCLB reauthorization and their broader agenda. And it's remarkable, after the administration came up with $100 billion in edu-aid last year to forestall hard choices and save jobs, how little appreciation it's banked with the unions and its putative allies.

At the same time, it's been nice to see the administration showing some real courage in standing its ground. In a July 1 statement, the White House threatened a veto if the bill made it to the president's desk with the RTT cuts. Peter Cunningham, Duncan's savvy spokesman, fired back gently at Obey, saying, "If Congress is determined to find offsets, we will help them do that, but these are not the right ones."

Unfortunately, the Obey imbroglio shows how pandering can take on a life of its own: This cash splash gained momentum initially when Duncan and the President uttered encouraging words about Harkin's unfunded proposal.

The other thing to keep in mind is not only how badly Obey would screw states that played by the RTT rules, but the message sent by the proposal itself. States played by the rules, and now that they've slogged through all of the hoops and done all that was asked through two rounds of applications, Obey would change the deal. The House measure calls into question the credibility of federal promises regarding i3, RTT, and similar reforms going forward. Even if the administration wins a next i3 or RTT, the odds of which have dimmed, it's now fair for potential applicants to ask whether a future administration or Congress might renege mid-program. As the WaPo opined last week, "That Mr. Obey's proposal would pull back money intended to fund Race to the Top applications that have already been filed can only be seen as undercutting any credibility U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan would have in coaxing state officials to make the often-hard political decisions of education reform." Well said.


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