Why are America’s Schools So Mediocre?

Perhaps because of politicians like Democratic Congressman David Obey of Wisconsin, who last night convinced his fellow members of Congress to pass a bill that would snatch back money already promised to education reform incentives like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition.

Why would Obey do such a thing? Particularly when his own state is gunning for Race to the Top funding? Wisconsin’s June 2010 application, signed by the state’s governor and superintendent, makes it clear that this money is vital to the kids in Obey’s state:

“The status quo is not acceptable. Race to the Top provides an unprecedented opportunity to expand successful state and local reform efforts to effect systemic change and increase education innovation. The State’s reform agenda will increase overall student achievement, close the achievement gaps, increase high school graduation rates, prepare students for college and careers, and build the capacity, human capital, to make the State’s reforms sustainable.”

So why would a Democratic congressman pull $800 million dollars away from a program that may turn out to be the most effective use of federal education funds in a generation? A program that is (relatively speaking) tiny, but has already incentivized more than a dozen states to change their laws and regulations and reform their schools before a single dime has been spent?

Obey says he wants this money to help bail out teachers whose jobs are in jeopardy due to the recession. But anyone who thinks this is about saving teachers’ jobs is being misled. Obey could get the money to protect teachers’ jobs elsewhere (Obama officials have given him specific alternative offsets within the budget to find this money.). He is just choosing not to. He has indicated before that he does not support reform efforts, and he is using the recession as an excuse to slow Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s momentum.

Let’s be clear. If Congress wants to save teachers’ jobs, they could do it a million different ways—including cutting existing budget fat like the $8.8 million Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners program (with thanks to Alyson Klein at Education Week):

That program “supports culturally based educational activities, internships, apprenticeship programs and exchanges for Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, children, and families of Massachusetts, and any federally recognized Indian tribe in Mississippi.”

To defend his actions, Obey likes to revert to gee-whiz metaphors: “When a ship is sinking, you don’t worry about redesigning a room, you worry about keeping it afloat.” Here’s the problem: this ship has been sinking for a very long time. It is not “afloat” for millions of kids around the country. For them, postponing teacher layoffs (which only imperil some 2-5% of teachers anyway) is like redesigning the room. Race to the Top is not perfect. But it is the closest thing we have to a life boat.