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What Would Sequestration Mean for K12?

Budget cuts may have a large impact on federally funded education programs.

Districts are bracing themselves for the impact of the major education cuts set to occur with the March 1 sequestration as they plan their budget and staffing choices for the fall, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement, and some teachers have already received pink slips. If congressional lawmakers are unable to compromise on another plan to trim the national budget, Department of Education funding will be scaled back 9 percent just this year alone, according to the national Center on Budget & Policy Priorities. Head Start and special education program funding would be two of the hardest hit, and slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars each, Duncan says. And up to 40,000 teachers and other school employees could face layoffs due to the planned, across-the-board cutbacks totaling $85 billion nationally.

“Sequestration is a bad policy. It cuts all programs by the same percentage, no matter the purpose or the performance,” says Duncan. “By reducing education funding now and in the coming years, it would jeopardize our nation’s ability to develop and support an educated, skilled workforce that can compete in the global economy.”

If the cuts are enacted, Duncan says, administrators must decide how to decrease their budgets on a district-by-district basis, be it by firing teachers, shortening school days, cutting after-school programs or other belt-tightening measures.

“The cuts are going to happen Friday—I have no question in my mind about that,” says Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), a member of the Education and the Workforce Committee. However, they are not definitive, he adds. Representatives will have the month of March to come to a compromise before making final budget decisions. And even if cuts are enacted, most will not go into effect until the 2013-2014 school year, Roe says, giving administrators time to prepare.

Relying on Federal Funds

The biggest concerns are for programs that are greatly dependent on federal money. For example, public schools on military bases and Indian reservations are especially at risk, Duncan says, and could have services impacted immediately. The planned $400 million cut to Head Start would remove an estimated 70,000 low-income children from the program, according to a Feb. 1 letter to Congress from the Department of Health and Human Services. Special education would be cut by $840 million, with 7,200 special education teachers and staff members laid off, a White House report states.

“It’s a serious concern, especially when you realize that the majority of public money in birth to five education programs is federal money,” says Adele Robinson, deputy executive director of policy and public affairs at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “The pain from these kinds of cuts is very real and very deep. Because the federal money is so focused on low-income children, it’s very worrying because their parents don’t have the funds to fill in the gaps, nor do the states.”

Should the cuts occur, states may reduce Head Start eligibility, increasing waiting lists that are already thousands of students long in some states, Robinson says, and putting more pressure on working parents to find child care. Only one in six children eligible for federally-funded child care is getting that care due to present fiscal constraints, she adds.

Preventing Cuts

The National Education Association released a statement that puts the onus on corporations. “It’s wrong to balance the budgets on the back of students without demanding corporations and the rich to pay their fair share [in taxes],” says Dennis Van Roekel, NEA president. “Congress has a duty to come up with a balanced approach to get our nation’s fiscal house in order without inflicting irreversible harm to our nation’s 50 million students and risking their future and our nation’s.”

The best way to prevent the major sequester cuts to education is for Congress to agree to decrease the budget differently, Roe says. Some, including representatives from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, have suggested further cuts to the defense budget, which the sequester will also affect. “We have to have, in America, a public education system that works for all of our children,” Roe adds. “Obviously taking money out doesn’t make it stronger. I’d like to see different cuts happen.”

An Overblown Issue?

Many experts say the fallout potential from the sequester has become exaggerated, and cuts will not be sudden or severe. “We have 50 states and some 14,000 school districts, and probably an equal number of different ways schools will be affected,” says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform. “We can’t make a blanket statement that says the sky is going to fall when there are thousands of different varieties of solvency.”

For example, Title I aid for disadvantaged students and special education funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are funded in advance, and these programs have already received most of their money for this school year, Allen says. And districts are required by state law to have a budget cushion to accommodate funding flexibilities, she adds. While the average district may have to cut “nonessentials” like administrator travel or purchasing new furniture, Allen says, the impact remains uncertain, and she feels it is unlikely to significantly trickle down to schools.