Congress gives and takes away for schools

WASHINGTON — Congress has created a conundrum for Connecticut educators. Should they lobby for money to minimize teacher layoffs if it means diminishing another badly needed education program?

For now, public officials and school advocates are refusing to choose, instead urging Congress to preserve both priorities, even as they acknowledge that is a tough sell.

The situation was unanticipated in May, when Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed a sweeping education reform package aimed at bolstering Connecticut’s efforts to win $175 million in federal funding under President Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative.

To make the state more competitive, the legislature passed a law creating a new teacher evaluation system, increasing high school graduation requirements, and strengthening charter schools, among other steps. That law gave the state a stronger hand as it applied for a share of $4.3 billion pot of federal Race to the Top funds.

On a parallel track, state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan and other education leaders across the country launched lobbying campaign in early June aimed at getting Congress to approve a $23 billion education rescue package aimed avoiding what McQuillan said would be the “dire consequences” of possible teacher lay-offs and school closings.

The House of Representatives responded last week to the latter plea by adding $10 billion (pared back from $23 billion) in education jobs money to a massive spending bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But House lawmakers voted to pay for the new education money, in part, by cutting $500 million from the Race to the Top program. (The House included additional off-sets, including $300 million in cuts to other education programs.)

“It’s a double edged sword,” said Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for Connecticut’s Department of Education. “We have been anxiously watching this play out in Congress, and unfortunately what’s happened is that there seems to have been a kind of a compromise” that involves paying for one education program at the expensive of another.

“We’re very concerned,” Murphy said.

He’s not the only one.

Alex Johnston, the CEO of ConnCAN, a school reform group that played a role in pushing through Connecticut’s new education law, said the $500 million proposed cut in Race to the Top money could mean the difference between success or failure in reforming Connecticut schools. He noted that in the first round of grants for Race to the Top funding, Connecticut fell short, with its application ranked 25th out of 40 states, and ended up with no federal funds.

With the new state reform package, Connecticut has a much better shot to get Phase 2 funding, Johnston said, but the state’s application is by no means guaranteed. “We don’t know where we stack up in Round 2, but if Connecticut’s going to win, it’s not going to come in first or second,” he said. “It would be right on the bubble,” so that extra $500 million could be pivotal for the state’s chances.

Moreover, Johnston said the Race to the Top initiative has sparked meaningful reforms across the country, and for Congress to pull the rug out now would be a terrible move. Connecticut is one of 36 states that have applied for Phase 2 funding, in a nationwide scramble to improve public education programs and snag federal money in the process.

“The leverage we’re getting [as a result of Obama’s new program] is phenomenal, and it’s exactly the wrong thing to reverse course in the middle of this when states have already acted in good faith to compete for this money,” Johnston said.

When pressed on whether it was better to avoid teacher lay-offs or preserve the state’s prospects for winning money to implement the new law, Johnston and others demurred, saying that both were vital.

To be sure, even as Connecticut seeks the federal grant money to implement the higher state standards, local school districts are handing out pink slips to teachers, cutting extra-curricular activities, and even shuttering schools.

“We already have communities-and not just the Hartfords and New Havens and Bridgeports, it’s suburban school districts-that are already putting layoff announcements out,” said John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. “Our state is in desperate need of this money,” he said of the $10 billion.

Union leaders say the education bail-out funds could save as many as 140,000 educator jobs nationwide.

Officials with the American Federation of Teachers in Washington are more worried about getting $10 billion to save jobs than they are about cuts to Race to the Top program, arguing that the $500 million is a relatively minimal cut that will still leave more than $3 billion for the administration to dole out to states.

But in Connecticut, the calculus is a little different.

Murphy said he was uncertain how much Connecticut would get if the $10 billion in education-jobs fund remains intact, but he estimated that it could be roughly $150 million. Connecticut’s Race to the Top grant seeks $175 million over four years. The federal Department of Education will announce the finalists for the grant on July 26.

“Our message … is we need both,” said Murphy. “If Connecticut does not receive the full $175 million [in Race to the Top money], it may derail reform efforts.”

On the other hand, he added, the prospect of a “precipitous drop” in funding for local schools, as a result of the 2009 federal stimulus dollars drying up, could mean hundreds, or even thousands, of Connecticut teachers losing their jobs.

“Either outcome is not acceptable,” Murphy said.

But one is fairly likely.

“We’re obviously dealing with a zero sum game here and something’s going to have to give,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who sits on the House education committee and has expressed serious concern about looming teacher lay-offs.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the war spending bill is on the Senate’s to-do list for July. When asked about the outlook for the $10 billion education funds included in that larger bill, he said that will likely turn on Senate Republicans, who have been nearly unified in opposing new Democratic spending initiatives.

As the election approaches, the mood in Congress among Republicans as well as some moderate Democrats toward new federal spending has turned decidedly skeptical. And particularly in the Senate, where Democrats are one vote short of a filibuster-proof majority, lawmakers have been reluctant to approve new spending bills without a revenue source.

Connecticut’s two senators, Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman both support the teacher funds and have have reservations about paying for it by cutting Race to the Top money. It not clear yet what the alternatives are.

The White House, seeking to protect one of Obama’s premier initiatives, has threatened to veto the House version of the bill. That could increase pressure on the Senate to find a different way to pay for the $10 billion teachers’ fund — or to nix the money all together.

“We understand it’s going to be a difficult vote,” said Murphy, the education-department spokesman. “And the chances of seeing the $10 billion fund pass the Senate are perhaps less than 50-50.”