Published Online: October 10, 2013
Updated: October 17, 2013

Budget Tensions Cloud Hopes for End to 'Sequester'

Sequestration—the across-the-board budget cuts that represent the biggest slash in federal education spending in recent history—may continue, education advocates fear, a consequence of the budget deadlock that shuttered the U.S. government and congressional brinkmanship over the debt ceiling.

With those twin fiscal crises having consumed lawmakers’ attention for weeks, stopping the sequestration cuts had been shoved to the side, leaving education advocates fearing that school districts would have to cope with yet another round of reductions to programs that serve the neediest children and students in special education. However, over the weekend, lawmakers who have expressed anxiety about sequestration renewed their push to end—or at least blunt—the cuts, as discussions continued over how to raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government.

“Sequestration is still hiding under the bed, but [it’s] been crowded out of the debate,” said Erik Fatemi, who until recently served as a top aide to Democrats on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, in an interview last week.

As a practical matter, the debt ceiling and the shutdown would have to be dealt with at some point, but there’s no requirement that lawmakers address the cuts, said Mr. Fatemi, who now serves as a vice president at Cornerstone Government Affairs, a lobbying firm in Washington. “Eventually, the shutdown and debt-limit crisis are going to be resolved, but how much energy is there going to be [left] for the White House and Congress to reverse sequestration?” he said.

The vast majority of the education cuts—totaling roughly 5 percent across the board, or nearly $2.5 billion in fiscal 2013, which ended Sept. 30—went into effect for this school year. So far, the impact has been slow-moving, uneven, and difficult to quantify, leading to a public relations challenge for K-12 advocates trying to plead their case to Congress.

While some programs, such as Head Start—administered under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—have taken a serious hit, many districts have been able to avoid significant layoffs and major programmatic reductions, in part because of a brightening state fiscal picture.

But, educators argue, the pain is almost certain to worsen if the cuts continue for several years.

“There is no question that, in the short run, the impact of the cuts is not clear to everyone,” said Mitchell D. Chester, the commissioner of education in Massachusetts and the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. But “it’s death by a thousand cuts. … The real concern that I have is that we’ll wake up in a decade and say, ‘What have we done to our school districts, particularly the school districts that serve the most vulnerable populations?’ ”

There’s still hope, Mr. Fatemi said, that Congress might end the cuts, which, without congressional action, will stay in place for a decade. But this fall’s negotiations will likely be a crucial make-or-break point. Next year is an election year, which would make the path to an agreement that much steeper, Mr. Fatemi said.

“The next couple months are absolutely critical,” he said, “not just for this year but for the next couple years.”

‘Kicking the Can’

Sequestration was never intended to happen at all—much less to drag on for multiple years. The across-the-board cuts were put in place as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011 and to force a long-range agreement to rein in federal deficits. The reductions were slated to hit both domestic programs most favored by Democrats, including aid for education, as well as defense programs, typically a top priority for Republicans.

Everyone, from President Barack Obama on down, thought the threat of the cuts would surely spur action. When Mr. Obama was asked about sequestration during a 2012 presidential debate, he said that “will not happen.” And earlier that year, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, told the CCSSO that sequestration “was set up to be so bad it would never happen.”

Despite the initial optimism, a broader budget deal has proved increasingly elusive—and the cuts have remained. Lawmakers have put in place smaller Band-Aid measures, leaving Congress careening from one high-stakes fiscal to crisis to another.

“The phrase everybody uses is ‘kicking the can down the road,’ ” Rich Long, the executive director for government relations at the National Title I Association, said. The sequestration cuts, he said, hurt schools without really doing much to cope with the nation’s yawning debt.

Stumbling in Congress

Already, Democrats in the Senate—who, along with the Obama administration have been the most vocal about the impact of the cuts on domestic programs—have made a key concession, advocates say. Before the government shutdown, the Senate approved a continuing resolution, for fiscal 2014, which started on Oct. 1, that would keep the sequestration cuts in place until later this fall.

The move may sound esoteric, but its effects could be far-reaching, slowing down the momentum for reversing the cuts. As lawmakers struggled to raise the debt ceiling and to reopen the government, the new starting point for negotiations on the fiscal 2014 spending bills was likely to be flat funding that locks in the sequester—not legislation that reverses it, advocates fear.

“The Senate essentially gave it away,” said Mr. Long, referring to the chance to find a way to halt the cuts this year. “I don’t see them going back on that.”

In the end, the House of Representatives still rejected the Senate-passed extension measure—not because of the spending levels, but because Republicans were hoping to use the need for budget action to delay the implementation of the president’s landmark health-care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare.

Some observers warn that education lobbyists may have to rethink their idea of a victory on the sequester cuts, at least for the time being.

If Congress keeps fiscal 2013 spending levels for both domestic and military programs in place, that could be seen as kind of implicit deal, said Jason Delisle, a former aide to Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee, who now directs the federal-education-budget project at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.

The budget blueprint approved by House Republicans earlier this year would shift much more of the burden of deficit reduction away from military programs and onto domestic discretionary spending, such as education.

“Strangely enough, not doing further cuts is a compromise,” Mr. Delisle said.

It’s unclear what another year of sequestration would mean for states and school districts­—including those that were largely able to weather the first year of reductions without much direct impact on the classroom.

State, District Views

New Mexico receives a much larger share of its K-12 funding from the federal government—about 16 percent or 17 percent—than the overall federal share nationally of about 10 percent. But the state was able to cope with the first round of cuts without much direct impact to the classroom, said Hanna Skandera, the secretary of education, in part because policymakers planned for the cuts well in advance. And it didn’t hurt that New Mexico significantly boosted its own education spending.

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“We were well prepared and will continue to be well prepared,” said Ms. Skandera, who was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican.

But Mr. Chester of Massachusetts, who is appointed by the state board of education, said that sequestration has had a “very real impact” on the Bay State’s ability to intervene in the lowest-performing schools.

In Maryland, the 18,000-student St. Mary’s County district didn’t feel much of a pinch from the first year of sequestration, thanks in part to come creative budgeting, said Superintendent Michael J. Martirano.

“I had to be very agile and nimble, but it hasn’t hit us [much] in the first year,” he said. But he doesn’t expect his luck to hold out, particularly if state revenues take a downward turn.

“I’ve taken care of the low-hanging fruit. … In my world, there are only so many places you can cut.”

Vol. 33, Issue 08

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