Blog: The Educated Reporter

Clock Ticks Down to Sequestration Deadline

If you’re thinking that sequestration — across-the-board budget cuts set to take effect today at every federal agency — doesn’t seem like the most thoughtful course of action for Congress to try and balance its books, you have plenty of company.

“I’ve been at this for 35 years, and this is the most insane thing ever,” said Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a nonpartisan lobbying group representing a diverse range of organizations, including K-12 school districts, higher education, research firms, and coalitions of public employees.

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has a pithy overview of who’s really to blame for sequestration, and the New York Times has also put out an explainer of how the cuts might be carried out. As I’ve mentioned previously, there aremore questions than answers as to how school districts might choose to make up their budget shortfalls. With personnel costs accounting for at least two-thirds of most district’s budgets, it’s going to be tough to fill the hole without shedding jobs. And those cuts are likely to hurt the poorest schools, which already depend more on federal dollars, the most.

Packer points out that with the exception of a few politicians on the far right of the political spectrum, there’s generally agreement that the cuts, amounting to about 8 percent of each agency’s budget, would be a mistake.

“These cuts were never supposed to take effect – the sequester was supposed to be so terrible and so unworkable that it would force Congress to come up with a better balanced plan,” said Packer, a former deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Labor. “No one would have ever written a law this way, it makes no sense. Because of partisan gridlock we are where we are.”

(For more from Packer, including the sequestration impact to higher education, check out my “Five Questions” Q&A with him at EdMedia Commons.)

There’s been some pushback on claims by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that school districts are already handing out pink slips, including from the Washington Post. And some lawmakers critical of the nation’s education funding structure contend there’s plenty of money to go around, it just isn’t being spent efficiently. But it’s tough to argue with the fact that school districts were expecting federal dollars for key areas including Title I (for the poorest schools) and special education, and the sequester means they’ll get less when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

With a rescue plan unlikely, the cuts are expected to take effect at 11:59 p.m. – the latest President Obama could set the trigger and still meet the requirement of the law. But that does give lawmakers the balance of the day to figure out an alternative.

“I’m happy to discuss other ideas to keep our commitment to reducing Washington spending at today’s meeting,” Kentucky Sen. Mitchell McConnell, the Senate’s top-ranked Republican, told USA Today. “But there will be no last-minute, back-room deal and absolutely no agreement to increase taxes.”

Packer isn’t optimistic, and says he expects the cuts to take effect at least in the short term. The real hope for turning this around is “a sufficient uproar and outcry from the public, not just education people,” Packer says. “You can’t keep cutting the same parts of the budget over and over. Eventually revenue has to be part of the equation.”


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