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Arne Duncan’s Education ‘Sequester’ Claims Questioned

By Alyson Klein — February 28, 2013 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has long been seen as an administration asset. But this past week, he’s also been the chief spokesman for the White House claims about the potential impact of sequestration on education jobs. Now those estimates have run afoul of fact-checkers—and that could ultimately undermine the administration’s effort to make education a poster child when it comes to the impact of sequestration on domestic programs.

Some background: On Sunday, the White House released a set of claims about the number of jobs that would be lost due to sequestration. We told readers that the numbers were very hard to prove or disprove—the number of actual jobs or positions lost will depend a lot on how districts decide to implement the cuts. (That information was also in our Sequestration FAQ.) And the numbers for key formula grant programs such as Title I grants for districts and special education in the final budget for this fiscal year, which must be agreed upon by March 27 to avoid a government shutdown, will also be key.

Plus, districts have known the cuts were a possibility for a long time, more than a year. Many districts—including most that receive federal impact aid, which supports schools that have a lot of kids from a nearby military base or Native American reservation—have already planned for a possible reduction in federal funding.

In general, federal aid typically makes up just about 10 percent of a district’s budget. That doesn’t mean the cuts won’t hurt, of course. But it does mean that superintendents have already been trying to figure out how to minimize the impact to students and staff. (Great information in this report by the American Association of School Administrators.)

But, even though it’s too early to really get a handle on just how many, if any, education jobs will be lost thanks to the federal cut, administration officials have insisted on going out with job-loss estimates. And now it’s beginning to bite them in the rear.

Yesterday, the Washington Post put Duncan through the fact-check ringer—giving him “Four Pinnochios” for his statements about pink slips already going out to teachers, which is what the education secretary told Politics K-12’s Michele and other reporters last week.

For the most part, districts haven’t sent out staff-reduction notices yet. The lag makes sense since districts are just beginning to do their budgets. Most haven’t yet figured out whether the federal cuts are likely to lead to layoffs or frozen positions. But the truth, which is that the sequester makes programmatic cuts and layoffs possible or likely, doesn’t make for nearly as snappy a sound bite. The Post even compared Duncan’s statements to Susan Rice’s comments on Libya, which ultimately doomed her bid for Secretary of State. Ouch.

Already, Republicans on the Hill are seizing the moment. GOP staff on the Senate Finance Committee sent around the Post‘s initial fact check in an email to reporters with the subject-line “Shame On Them.”

Will the perception that Duncan and the White House are inflating the job loss estimates ultimately hurt the administration’s—and advocates'—push to ensure that pending education cuts should be part of the sequester debate? Comments section is open.

UPDATE: This story just doesn’t seem to be going away. Today, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was hammered about the inaccuracies in Duncan’s statement to the briefing room, in which,when pressed to name an example of a district that’s cut personnel because of sequestration, he claimed that a West Virginia district was planning to lay some teachers off. (He did say that he wasn’t sure it was due to the looming cuts.)

Here’s a snippet from the transcript of a White House press conference in which reporters asked about the inaccuracies. Duncan was a recurring theme, and it seems his statements cast doubt on everything else the administration has said about the impact of sequestration on domestic programs.

Reporter: The Education Secretary was here yesterday. He said some things that didn't prove to be true about the immediacy of pink slips for teachers. He mentioned a specific school district in West Virginia. They're not sequester-related at all. He made some sort of mild -- suggested that they might not be. They're clearly not. How confident are you, Jay, and confident is this administration that the things it's saying and the portrait it is presenting to the country is not only accurate but will stand the scrutiny of time once these cuts begin? Carney: Well, we're very confident -- Reporter: Because it's not the first time that there was a note of exaggeration or factual inaccuracy. Carney: Oh, really? Because if you want to provide other examples, I'd take them. Reporter: The FAA can't explain definitively there will be 90-minute delays. That's another example. Carney: Well, I don't know that the Secretary of Transportation was giving you an absolute minute target for how much the delays will be. If there are going to be delays as a result of reduction in man-hours and personnel among our air traffic controllers, that's a fact. And I hope you keep that in mind when you're on your next commercial flight and you're delayed, if that does in fact come into effect with the sequester. I would refer you to the Department of Education and to the superintendent of schools in the district that you mentioned for specifics about that. I'm certainly not familiar with it. I can tell you that the impacts of sequester are real, and to diminish them -- Reporter: But you're familiar with that example -- it's wrong. That was wrong. Carney: Well, I'm unfamiliar of the example. I would refer you to the Department of Education and to the superintendent of the school district for more information about it. I don't have it. What I can tell you is that -- Reporter: Jay, it came from your podium, right? You guys said that. You guys made the statement. Reporter: It was in this room, and - Carney: I'm just saying I don't have any -- I am not personally in contact with individual school districts ... Reporter: But they said the information said at that podium was false, it was wrong. So I'm asking you to acknowledge that. Carney: I don't have any more for you in it. I welcome -- I encourage you to make phone calls in the old-fashioned reporting sense to find out more if you like. I don't have anything more for you on it.