Blog: The Educated Reporter

Clock Ticks Down on Sequestration: Public Education Braces for Impact

Barring a last-minute deal by lawmakers, sequestration — the withholding of funding to federal agencies as a result of across-the-board budget cuts put in place by Congress — will take effect Friday. The looming deadline stems from negotiations that resulted in the raising of the debt ceiling in summer 2011. The majority of the cuts, representing about 8 percent of every federal agency’s budget, would be immediate.

However, the cuts to most federal funding for schools will be delayed until the start of the 2013-14 academic year, giving local education agencies more time to prepare. At the same time, education officials at the local, state and national levels are warning that the steep cuts could devastate public schools, particularly those with large populations of at-risk students.

Below is a breakdown of what key players and media outlets are writing about the nearly $3 billion haircut education programs at the K-12 and university levels are facing.

The White House on Sunday came out with a report tallying the cuts it expects will affect major federal spending programs, including those in education. Some of the estimated losses include the following:

  • The sequestration’s effect on Title I could lead to 2,700 schools losing the federal education grant money, affecting nearly 1.2 million students.
  • Reductions in special education dollars through IDEA could eliminate some 7,200 teachers, aides, and other staff that work with students with disabilities.
  • Head Start is also on the chopping block, with 70,000 slots for low-income young children eliminated. Over 14,000 Head Start personnel could also lose their jobs.   

Cuts to post-secondary work-study program have a wide range and would amount to 4,150 in New York and 3,690 slots in California to 50 in New Mexico, according to The Washington Post.

[See our Story Starter on K-12 Finance & Operations and Higher Education Finance]

While the figures appear grim, critics of federal education spending are taking the White House to task for overstating sequestration’s impact on student learning. Conservative non-profit Heritage Foundation helped lead the charge:

 “The Obama Administration incorrectly argues that any cuts to the education budget would come at the expense of teacher jobs or special needs funding. That is incorrect. No federal education program operated by the Department of Education directly funds teacher salaries—this is a state and local responsibility.”

The writers of that piece also contend numerous federal education programs are redundant or ineffective, pointing to Head Start and dozens of smaller efforts House Republicans deemed duplicative in a 2011 report.

A Politico article went so far as to question the dire nature of cuts in general, citing experts that argue there are congressional efforts to retroactively soften the blow of sequestration. And because the lion’s share of education spending is locked up in programs that won’t be affected until the next school year, that buys districts time as they look to Congress and the White House to come to an agreement. Not all local education officials will have time to wait, however. A program known as Impact Aid that delivers federal dollars to areas in close proximity to federal lands could see some $60 million axed. Still, education researchers that follow this pot of money say states have had at least six months to prepare for the lost revenue as a result of the fiscal cliff that hung over budget offices last year.

Political observers have also noted the irony in the White House’s position on the looming cuts even though the idea put on the table by the president’s advisors during a budget impasse with Republicans in 2011. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was asked to comment on who holds the blame during a CBS interview:

“I think the sequester was set up to be so painful for everybody, recognizing the dysfunction of Congress to be so painful that it would force people to come to the table,” he said. “And the fact that people in Congress are so tone deaf to what’s really going on in their districts and what would really happen, that to me is just, it’s unimaginable.”

Various associations and government agencies have put forth tallies of what states stand to lose if the sequestration takes hold. The National School Board Association puts the figure at $50,000 for every $1 million in federal funds a district receives. The nation’s largest teachers union put out a line item of anticipated cuts for every state, running the gamut of teacher training services and afterschool programs to financial support for adult literacy education. Some of the dollar figures do not align with the White House report. Idaho’s education officials are preparing for a shortfall of $200,000 greater than what the White House predicts, a difference of 4 percent.

How sequestration will affect local economies remains an uncertainty. Economists in California, a state that just recently crawled out of the economic doldrums are relying on a revitalized housing market and newly passed tax increases to offset the losses the budget act may bring. In Louisiana and New York, there are fears the fiscal straightjacket will have a pronounced impact on higher education research, the result of an estimated $2.1 billion cuts to the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.