I just got off one of the stranger conference calls of my conference call career. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes joined others on a call to argue for an immediate education jobs fund to save the careers of teachers facing layoffs. They laid out all the reasons why teachers must stay in the classroom and why we risk failing our students without this funding. They were very passionate about this. They rejected the notion that the White House has been unclear or aloof on the issue, noting in painstaking detail all the times that the President on down have advocated to save teacher jobs.

And then, Barnes said, “We don’t have to make a choice between reform and making sure teachers are able to stay in the classroom,” and that if the education jobs fund got paid for with a sliver of stimulus money dedicated to the Race to the Top program, they would recommend a veto.

Then I got whiplash.

There are actually three stimulus programs that would get a cut in funding under the bill passed in the House as part of the war supplemental: Race to the Top, the Teacher Incentive Fund (which is about performance pay and encouraging teachers to work in hard-to-staff, low-income areas) and the Charter Schools Fund. Barnes and Duncan want to find other means of offsetting the jobs fund. The Education Secretary said that he would “work with Congress” on that. “I’m happy to have skin in the game,” Duncan said. But he gave no specifics of potential offsets, likely to come from the Education Department.

It’s important to recognize what the Race to the Top program is. It’s a pot of money. The Education Department dangles it in front of the states to get them to change their education policies to what they prefer. And then it slowly dribbles it out. $4.3 billion dollars was appropriated in the stimulus for RTTT. Only $600 million has gone out, to two states (Tennessee and Delaware), 18 months later. So Arne Duncan has already cost teacher jobs by holding back $3.7 billion for a year and a half to try and entice more desperate states to change their policies.

Incidentally, increased class size, which comes with the firing of teachers, LOWERS THE AMOUNT OF MONEY states can be eligible for under the RTTT program. So denying the education jobs fund by vetoing the bill over a $500 million cut to RTTT (less than a 20% decrease) actually lowers the amount states can receive. It’s a cut EITHER WAY, and arguably a larger one if the education jobs money doesn’t go through.

Barnes and Duncan could not explain why a $3.8 billion dollar Race to the Top program would somehow be less successful than a $4.3 billion dollar program. He said that 36 states are applying for Round 2, and the cut in funding would mean “a couple states would lose out.” Um, 48 states lost out in Round 1, and as a result lost money for their education budgets that led to worse outcomes for students. I cannot fathom how a sliver of reform money is seen as more important than the biggest reform to schools you can make, namely “giving them enough teachers.”

Some of Barnes and Duncan’s willing minions have a Wall Street Journal op-ed today that makes a similar case, and I can’t make heads or tails out of it either.

Barnes said that cutting RTTT is a “decision we don’t have to make.” Well, they can come up with something tangible, then. But I don’t see any logic to holding a slush fund to blackmail states when we’re in the middle of a state budget crisis.