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Lawmakers trade broadband grants, school reforms for education jobs

The measure must still pass the Senate, where Republicans have threatened a filibuster.
The measure still must pass in the Senate, where Republicans have threatened a filibuster.

School districts would get $10 billion in additional funding to help them avoid laying off teachers, and college students would get $5 billion more in Pell Grant money to account for a shortfall in that program, under a supplementary spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives July 1. But the additional funding would come at a price for other programs, including $600 million in cuts to broadband stimulus funding and $800 million in cuts to school-reform initiatives.

The changes are part of an $80 billion war spending bill needed to pay for President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. As of press time, the bill was awaiting action in the Senate.

The president has promised to veto the bill over its proposed cuts to his school-reform initiatives, including $100 million in charter school funding, $200 million in Teacher Incentive Fund money, and $500 million from the Education Department’s showcase “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program.

“We do not believe that taking money out of that important investment makes any sense at all,” said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, referring to RTTT in particular. “The president’s been clear with Congress that that doesn’t make any sense at all.”

The rebuke marks an unusually public clash between the White House and President Obama’s top Democratic allies in the House, including Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House appropriations committee, who introduced the education jobs provision.

In debate over the measure on the House floor on July 1, Obey called objections to cutting RTTT “a joke,” noting that even with the proposed $500 million cut, Education Secretary Arne Duncan still has about $3 billion left that “he can spend any way he wants,” the New York Times reported.

The $10 billion Education Jobs Fund is intended to help schools avoid further layoffs to their teaching staffs, especially as federal stimulus funding comes to an end. In a recent survey from the American Association of School Administrators, 68 percent of superintendents said they were forced to cut personnel in 2009-10, despite the influx of stimulus money—and 90 percent anticipate having to do so in 2010-11.

The jobs provision was coupled with $4.95 billion to help fill a shortfall in federal Pell Grants for low-income college students, as well as $1.3 billion in other spending, such as border security and alternative-energy technology loans.

To finance these new initiatives, the House bill includes $11.7 billion in “rescissions from programs that no longer require the funding, have sufficient funds on hand, or do not need the funding this year or next,” as well as $4.7 billion in savings from changes to mandatory programs.

The rescissions include billions of dollars in unspent stimulus funding for highways, community development, and broadband projects, as well as $800 million in unspent money for education.

Cutting $100 million intended to spur the development of more charter schools would bring the total amount of FY2010 funding for the Public Charter School program down to $156 million. (Congress has targeted charter school funding just as new research suggests that charter schools perform no better, on average, than regular public schools.) Cutting $200 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund would bring the total for that program to $400 million, and cutting $500 million from RTTT would leave $2.9 billion to be spent; Delaware and Tennessee already received $600 million in RTTT funding in the first wave of grants.

The bill also would cut $300 million in distance learning, telemedicine, and broadband grants and loans from the Agriculture Department, and another $300 million from the Commerce Department’s Broadband Technology Opportunities program.

The House passed the measure a day before President Obama announced $780 million in new grants and loans to fund 66 more broadband stimulus projects nationwide, benefiting more than 2,400 schools in all 50 states.

Thirty-seven of these projects are in rural areas, and they are expected not only to create some 5,000 jobs up front, but also help spur economic development in some of the nation’s hardest-hit communities, creating jobs for years to come, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“The broadband projects announced today will give rural communities access to the tools they need to create jobs, stimulate local economies, and build a foundation for future prosperity,” Vilsack said.

The measure still needs Senate approval, but that looks unlikely in its present form. Senate Republicans are promising a filibuster of the bill because of its non-war additions.

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