Amid Budget Clash, Government Shutdown Looms
Advocates escalate efforts against House budget cuts to key education programs
Education advocates fought last week to stave off deep cuts to key programs in the current year’s federal budget, and nervously eyed a coming clash in Congress over efforts to reach a spending agreement, as the prospect looms of the first government shutdown in more than a decade.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers divided over just how much to scale back government spending, after the GOP-controlled House of Representatives approved a bill Feb. 19 that would cut more than $60 billion out of discretionary spending, including more than $5 billion from the budget currently funding the U.S. Department of Education.
That bill, passed on a nearly party-line vote of 235-189, would make hefty cuts to such high-profile programs as Title I grants to school districts and the School Improvement Grants school turnaround program. The Head Start preschool program, administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, also would get a big cut.
In addition, the bill would eliminate more than a dozen Education Department programs, including Educational Technology State Grants and Math and Science Partnerships.
Congress was racing to figure out how to finance most of the federal government—including the Education Department—for the remainder of fiscal 2011, which started Oct. 1. Lawmakers failed to pass a budget before that deadline, so the government has been operating under a series of short-term measures that finance most programs at the same levels as last year, fiscal 2010. The current stopgap measure expires March 4.
Congress had a couple of options aside from a shutdown: The members could work out a budget deal for the remainder of the fiscal year, or they could come up with another short-term extension, which would give them more time to debate.
Both options faced huge hurdles, however.
Any overall budget deal would have to make its way through the Democratic-controlled Senate, where leaders have signaled they planned to resist many of the cuts approved by the House, even as they were under pressure to reach a compromise.
As for another short-term extension to buy negotiating time—something still up in the air as of deadline last week—the House and Senate visions appear to differ starkly. In the Senate, leaders last week said publicly they wanted to keep funding at current levels, while House Republicans would still insist on deep cuts even in a bill that keeps the lights on over the next several weeks.
Many observers worried the two sides are likely to find themselves at an impasse, unable to pass even a short-term bill to keep the government functioning. The Education Department last week was updating its shutdown plans, said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the agency.
The most recent government shutdowns for budget reasons were in 1995 and 1996, after the Republicans' 1994 midterm-election victories gave the GOP control of both houses of Congress. Budget stalemates between President Bill Clinton and Capitol Hill resulted in two shutdowns of most domestic federal offices. The first lasted several days in November 1995; the second, in December 1995 and January 1996, lasted 24 days.
If there is another stalemate, it's likely that key formula-funded programs that schools particularly depend on—Title I grants for districts and special education state grants—would be unaffected, at least not for a while.
Both programs, like most major formula-grant programs the Education Department, are "forwarded funded." That means the money for fiscal 2011—the year under debate—won't be distributed until July.
A shutdown would have to last many months before school districts would lose out on those dollars—a very unlikely prospect.
Back in 1995 and 1996, department officials were more concerned about getting payments to contractors, which in some cases ceased when the government was shuttered. So did program reviews and monitoring of districts, said Marshall S. Smith, a former deputy education secretary who worked at the agency at the time.
It is unclear whether there would be similar issues in a potential new shutdown.
Only a handful of department employees, including Mr. Smith, reported to work during the stalemate. He said staff members currently working at the department have asked him what it was like during a shutdown.
"At first, it [felt] like a Sunday or something—only a few people in the office; maybe you'd have a meeting or two," he said. "For the first couple days, you took it moderately lightly." But, he added, "as it drags on, you begin to get more serious about it. All sorts of things pop up that you just haven’t thought of originally."
There may be unforeseen problems if there's a shutdown this time around, Mr. Smith cautioned. For instance, the department would almost certainly be unable to respond to any potential crisis at a school, such as a shooting. Typically in such cases, the department can help districts and states locate grief counselors and other experts, Mr. Smith said.
At least one current state schools chief who was on the job in 1995 and 1996 remembers a lot of anxiety at the time, but very few tangible problems.
"We were very concerned about the federal government shutdown, and followed the negotiations closely," Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland’s state superintendent of schools, said in an e-mail. "But, in the end, we didn't find that the shutdown disrupted the work we do. The federal funding came through as promised and projected."
This time around, "we are watching the latest battle in Washington, D.C., with great interest, but we're hopeful that it won't disrupt the federal programs that affect our schools and students," she added.
The program that could most immediately feel the squeeze is impact aid, which provides funds to help make up for property-tax revenue lost to districts that enroll a high number of students whose parents are in the military, as well as American Indian students and students living in low-rent federal housing.
Impact aid is one major formula program in the Education Department that follows the same schedule as the regular federal fiscal year—it isn't forward-funded.
Many districts that depend on the aid have already applied for—and received—a significant portion of their funding through early funding requests, made in case Congress doesn't pass its spending bills by the Sept. 30 deadline. That has been typical in recent years, said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association for Federally Impacted Schools, in Washington.
During the previous shutdown,Mr. Forkenbrock persuaded the department to temporarily shift money from forward-funded programs to help finance impact-aid requests until the government was up and running again. He's already talking to lawmakers and the Obama administration about using a similar strategy this year, if a shutdown becomes a reality.
Even as they braced for a possible impasse, advocates pressed Congress to resist the cuts made in the temporary funding measure approved Feb. 19 by the House.
That bill would make a nearly $693.5 million cut to Title I grants to districts, which are currently funded at $14.5 billion and help provide for the education of disadvantaged children; a $500 million cut to state grants for teacher quality, now funded at nearly $3 billion; and a $336 million cut to the School Improvement Grants, or SIG, program, currently funded at $546 million. It would also include a $1 billion cut to the $7.2 billion Head Start budget and an $845 cut to the maximum Pell Grant of $5,550.
Right after the House bill passed, several early-childhood-advocacy organizations held an audio-conference to explain to their members what thecuts would mean. More than 1,000 people registered for the call, according to Danielle Ewen, the director of child-care and early-education policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, in Washington, one of the groups involved.
"We've been trying hard to let people know this is real," she said. Some programs would almost certainly have to close classrooms and make big cuts in quality and hours of service, such as going from five days to four.
The National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union, has calculated how much the cuts will affect each state and is getting that information to its members.
Vol. 30, Issue 22, Pages 18, 21Published in Print: March 2, 2011, as Amid Budget Clash, Federal Shutdown Looms