Saving teachers' jobs has never been more controversial.
What started in April as an attempt by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to provide $23 billion in federal funds to avert hundreds of thousands teacher layoffs has descended into an ugly battle pitting lawmakers, the Education Department, unions, and education reform groups against one another.
With the measure unable to pass as a standalone, Democratic leadership on the Hill attached the teacher layoff money, now whittled down to $10 billion, to a must-pass military supplemental that is struggling to get through Congress.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., brought the controversy to new heights on Wednesday by offering an amendment that would divert $800 million from the administration's signature education reform initiatives in order to offset the cost of the jobs money. Obey's amendment proposes cutting $500 million from Race to the Top, $100 million from the federal Charter Schools Program and $200 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund.
Pushing back against the Obey initiative, the Education Department stated that the reform programs are the wrong places to cut and alternative sources should be identified. The sentiment was echoed by state education chiefs who have worked to make their states competitive for Race to the Top money, among other federal initiatives.
"Difficult choices have to be made during these troubled economic times," David Steiner, New York's state education commissioner, said in a statement. "But we believe that it is counterproductive and wrong to link together -- and to pit against the other -- funding for critically needed education reforms and jobs for our students' teachers."
Education reform groups are also up in arms about the potential cuts to reform-minded programs. By the end of the day on Wednesday, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Education Trust and the New Teacher Project sent out press releases urging Congress to reject Obey's amendment.
"The Obey bill would quite literally swipe hundreds of millions of dollars in already promised funding," the Education Trust said in a statement.
These same reform groups took issue with the bill at its inception, arguing that the money should not be awarded without requiring states to reform "last-hired, first-fired" layoff policies. Most districts hand out pink slips according to seniority, a practice considered by some to be "quality-blind" when it comes to the effectiveness of teachers.
Lawmakers have also joined the fray.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., urged his House colleagues to sign a letter to Obey requesting that he reconsider the cuts. The ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, John Kline, R-Minn., called the education job money an exploitation of the emergency troop funding. "Democrats have shown their true priorities, jumping at the chance to discard education reform to salvage an unpopular bailout for the education establishment," Kline added in a statement sent early Wednesday.
Worried that Polis' letter could hurt the chances of the education jobs money making it through, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union, retaliated with a letter of its own asking lawmakers not to sign on to Polis' letter.
The House may vote on the supplemental package before recess, but since the Senate is already in recess, the upper chamber wouldn't be able to take it up before July 12.