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House passes R2T cuts

The U.S. House Thursday passed an amended supplemental spending bill that funds a proposed $10 billion teacher jobs program with cuts in other federal programs, including Race to the Top.

A White House spokesman has indicated President Obama will veto the bill if the Senate accepts the House amendment. Senators are not expected to take up the measure until the week after next at the earliest.

Colorado’s $175 million R2T bid possibly could be affected by the proposal.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., wants to use $800 million in previously budgeted reform money to help pay for a $10 billion Education Jobs Fund, which would be distributed to states to blunt the impact of teacher job losses caused by budget cuts. Obey is chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Colorado Rep. Jared Polis, D-2nd District, and seven other House members sent a letter to Obey Thursday, asking him to withdraw the plan.

Later Thursday, Polis voted no on the bill.

“We are deeply troubled by the proposed $800 million cuts to three critical education reform programs: $100 million from the Charter Schools Program, $200 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund and $500 million from Race to the Top,” the letter said.

“By setting the bar very high and challenging education communities across the nation to come together in pursuit of our common goal for improving public schools, Race to the Top has already led to major progress that will improve student achievement. … But to realize its potential, Race to the Top needs to keep its promise to state like New York, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Florida, Maryland and Colorado, that undertook bold education reforms and challenged the status quo, which historically has failed too many students, with the understanding that they would get the resources needed to pay for them. Your proposed cut would undermine the integrity of this process and jeopardize its success,” the letter continued.

Obey’s $10 billion jobs fund would be distributed to states based on overall and school age population. States could allocate the money to districts based on their main funding formulas or through Title I. (Colorado has about 1.5 percent of national public school enrollment. So, theoretically, the state could receive about $160 million if the plan is passed and distributed to all states based on enrollment. State aid to school districts for 2010-11 is $260 million below what originally was budgeted for 2009-10.)

If a governor didn’t apply for the money, the secretary of education could give it directly to other agencies within a state.

Money from the jobs fund could be used only for personnel costs “to retain existing employees, to recall or rehire former employees, and to hire new employees” (minus 2 percent for state administrative costs).

The money couldn’t be used for state rainy day funds or to supplant existing state support of schools and colleges.

The Obey plan reignites the debate started by an earlier proposal to create a $23 billion education jobs fund. Because that plan didn’t offset the spending with cuts elsewhere, it ran into opposition from members of Congress who are leery of adding to the federal deficit.

In addition to taking the $800 million from education reform funds, the Obey plan would tap other federal programs.

While education advocates and the education media have focused on the jobs program and the R2T cut, the $45.6 billion bill contains much larger chunks of spending and raises a variety of issues for members of Congress, depending on their ideological and economic views.

The measure includes funding for everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Haiti relief, border security and funds for combating the Gulf Coast oil spill.

In addition to Polis, Colorado members Mike Coffman, R-7th; Doug Lamborn, R-5th; and Betsy Markey, R-4th, voted no. Reps. Diana DeGetter, D-1st; Ed Perlmutter, D-7th, and John Salazar, D-2nd, voted for the measure.

The proposed shift of stimulus funds has drawn opposition from education reform advocates. Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children, Thursday issued an e-mail alert asking people to contact members of Congress and oppose the Obey amendment. The organization has a Colorado chapter.

The National Education Association issued a news release late Thursday heralding passage of the amended bill, using the headline “NEA Members Get It Done! House Passes $10 Billion Jobs Bill.”

The NEA (parent of the Colorado Education Association) estimates the Obey program could save 138,000 educator jobs.

In another news release, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, “The U.S. House of Representatives tonight took a courageous stand for students by ignoring a threatened presidential veto and voting for $10 billion to avert massive teacher layoffs and $5 billion in Pell Grants to help college students with tuition. … It’s deeply disappointing that a Democratic administration would threaten to veto a jobs bill because paying for it would require a negligible cut from its new pet programs. We understand the administration wants to protect its favorite programs for future disbursements, but we need to protect kids and this generation of new teachers now. A small sacrifice from the Race to the Top program isn’t too much to ask, especially since it still would leave more than $3 billion for future spending.”

There’s about $3.4 million left in the Race to the Top fund. Winners in round two of that competition will be announced in late August or early September.

Colorado, a round one finalist that didn’t make the final cut, has submitted a $175 million application for the second round. While the amount is minascule in comparison to overall state education spending, state officials believe a grant would provide key funding for implementation of major but not fully funded reform initiatives such as the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and the new educator effectiveness law.

Colorado Department of Education spokesman Mark Stevens said the state in May applied for about $47 million in charter schools funds for a five-year period. He said the state may partner with a local school district in applying for teacher improvement funds. Stevens said education Commissioner Dwight Jones didn’t yet have a comment on the Obey plan.

Regardless of what happens with the jobs fund and reform money, Colorado school funding also could be affected by federal decisions on Medicaid funding.

The federal government is paying 61.59 percent of Medicaid costs through Dec. 31, halfway through the state fiscal year that started on Thursday. Without congressional action, the match will revert to the traditional 50 percent federal, 50 percent state system.

That could cost Colorado $211 million in the second half of the fiscal year. If that happens, Gov. Bill Ritter has said further cuts to K-12 spending and higher education budgets probably are unavoidable.

Governors have been lobbying hard for extension of the higher federal reimbursement rate. But, continuation of that rate has hit opposition from members of Congress who are nervous about the deficit.

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