Saving teachers vs. saving reform: A false dichotomy?

UPDATE: The House has passed the military spending bill which includes the $10 billion teacher jobs saving measure. President Obama has threatened a veto it. First, though, the bill has to be reconciled with a Senate bill passed in May, and that could take a while.

A proposal to move a chunk of money designated for education reform over to saving teaching jobs is causing a major fuss in Washington, D.C. this week. The proposal is attached to a war bill, and it would shift about $10 billion out of various pots designated for promoting education reforms favored by the Obama administration, including increasing the number of charter schools, paying teachers for performance, and Obama’s signature Race to the Top contest.

(photo courtesy of Patsy Lynch)

Fans and opponents of the proposal are arguing over whether Congress should focus on saving education jobs or saving education reforms. Opponents say the plan threatens the administration’s reform agenda, which has been on a roll this year as states have passed new laws raising charter school caps and made other changes to education policy in order to qualify for Race to the Top. The money that would come out of the Race to the Top pot for teacher jobs amounts to about 10 percent of the $4.35 billion total. The Teacher Incentive Fund, which pays for teacher merit pay programs, would take a bigger hit proportionally, as would the charter school fund.

Fans counter that the diversion of funds will help avert layoffs, which the National Education Association says could affect more than 80 percent of the nation’s school districts and lead to increased class size, shortened school years and school weeks, and fewer programs.

So which is more important — funneling money to the districts that have embraced the Obama administration’s reform goals, or spreading the money around to all districts, regardless of their stance on reforms? Or is this a false dichotomy?

In a couple of the school districts I’ve visited recently, administrators were worried about losing teachers, but mainly because that meant redirecting staff who had been participating in new programs meant to reform instruction and improve educational offerings within the school. This includes things like literacy coaches, pre-k and kindergarten, and curriculum specialists. Their work is often invisible, and perhaps not as drastic as opening new charters or restructuring teacher pay, but in many of the districts that have seen lots of improvement in recent years – where high-visibility changes like charters are happening, too — these reforms also seem important.

Arguing over teachers vs. reform may mask some of this nuance, and may not be all that helpful in figuring out how to expand the number of successful schools, which will depend both on thoughtful, effective reforms and a sufficient number of people to carry them out.

Then again, some might say all this money being thrown at education won’t really matter either way you toss it. What’s your take?


President Obama has weighed in on the debate, asking Congress not to take the money for jobs from his Race to the Top fund.

Over at Huffington Post, Kati Haycock, from Education Trust, says the proposal “breaks a national promise” to schools.

Also on Huffington Post, Diane Ravitch says lawmakers should support the bill, and goes on to argue that Obama’s “reforms” are just a Republican wish list anyway.

And Eliza Krigman, writing that “saving teachers’ jobs has never been more controversial,” provides a list of more supporters and detractors of the bill.

Sarah Garland