School districts anxiously awaiting another round of across-the-board cuts to federal education programs will have to endure another few months of uncertainty, under a bipartisan deal that put an end to the first government shutdown in nearly two decades and prevented the nation from defaulting on its debt.
Instead of breathing a sigh of relief as the impasse came to an end, education advocates are steeling themselves for yet another high-stakes budget battle. The agreement signed by President Barack Obama Oct. 17 to end the partial shutdown would keep all programs in the U.S. Department of Education running at current funding levels until Jan. 15. That means the automatic, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration will remain in place temporarily, although the door is open for lawmakers to negotiate a long-term reprieve from the reductions.
Focus of Debate
The cuts are expected to be a central point of debate in the next round of budget wrangling, which will likely continue to consume the nation’s capital for the next several months.
Meanwhile, K-12 schools were largely spared the brunt of the impact from the government shutdown, since most federal aid flows to districts over the summer.
But Head Start, an early-childhood education program administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Impact Aid, which helps districts make up for tax revenue lost because of a federal presence in their backyard, were exceptions. The end of the shutdown came just in the nick of time for both programs, which would have faced massive disruptions if the budget standoff had dragged on much longer.
The agreement, which also raises the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, sets up a bipartisan budget conference committee, which must report by Dec. 13 with a list of recommendations for coping with the nation’s long-term budget woes, including sequestration. The cuts, which were put in place in the summer of 2011 as part of another deal to raise the debt ceiling, hit both domestic programs favored by Democrats, and defense spending, favored by Republicans.
The next few months may present the clearest opportunity for education advocates to turn off the automatic sequestration cuts, analysts say. Getting rid of them could be a lot tougher if the cuts remain well into 2014, an election year. Sequestration is slated to stay in place for a decade unless lawmakers come up with some sort of alternative solution.
“If they don’t do it now, there’s this feeling in the education community that the sequestration cuts are permanent,” said Michael Griffith, a school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
And Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an education lobbying coalition in Washington, said he is “mildly hopeful” that Congress might spare districts from the sequester, even if temporarily. He’s hoping that the defense industry might be persuasive with GOP lawmakers: The next round of cuts, slated for January, would hit military spending particularly hard, which might amp up the pressure on Republicans to make changes to the entire sequester.
Education advocates see a potential champion in one of the budget panel’s leaders, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a former preschool teacher who has been vocal about the effect of the sequester on education. The other leader is Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a former vice-presidential candidate, whose austere budget proposal spurred criticism from education advocates during the 2012 election.
The fight over sequestration may only be the beginning. Lawmakers still need to hammer out a vision for education spending in fiscal year 2014—and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratically-controlled Senate are far apart. When it comes to spending on health, labor, and education programs, the House and Senate must bridge a roughly $42 billion gap, Mr. Packer said.
There will be some big programmatic decisions that could have major implications for the Obama administration’s agenda. For instance, a spending bill written by Senate Democrats for fiscal year 2014, which began Oct. 1, includes a big boost for education. It includes $250 million for a new version of the administration’s signature Race to the Top competition, aimed at higher education, plus a $1.6 billion hike for Head Start and $750 million to help states revamp early-childhood education—a down payment on the president’s proposed universal pre-kindergarten program.
On the other hand, the House education spending bill was considered by some GOP lawmakers to be so skimpy that they balked at unveiling it.
Under the deal to reopen the government, the nearly 4,000 Education Department employees who had been furloughed returned to work. They will get back pay as part of the budget agreement.
Employees returned to a mile-long to-do list that includes examining 219 applications for the latest round of Race to the Top grant competition for districts, and taking a look at applications for a piece of the $280 million Race to the Top program for early learning, plus assisting states with monitoring and renewal of their waivers from provisions under the No Child Left Behind Act.
“I know that you’re coming back to even more work than you already had on your plate before the department had to shut down,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote in a memo to his staff on Oct. 17, the day the government reopened. “Emails have piled up. Voicemails will be waiting for your callback. Projects are falling behind schedule.”
Head Start Losses
Meanwhile, Head Start was a high-profile victim of the shutdown. Twenty-three programs receive their annual federal funding in October, and several were forced to close during the budget impasse, until a pair of Houston-based philanthropists, John and Lauren Arnold, came forward with a $10 million grant to tide them over. The Arnolds will get their money back if Head Start grantees are funded retroactively to Oct. 1, the start of the shutdown.
Dora Jones, the director of the Talladega, Ala.-based Talladega Clay Randolph Child Care Corp., a Head Start grantee serving 770 children, said last week that she was expecting information soon about a resumption of funding. The six centers that the grantee runs had to close for six days before reopening with funds provided by the Arnolds. “We have not lost any children as a result,” Ms. Jones said, though some families had to pay for other care providers while the center was closed.
Impact Aid Payments
The end of the shutdown also came just in time to spare the 1,200 school districts that receive roughly $1 billion in federal Impact Aid, which is one of a handful of federal K-12 programs that rely on payments made throughout the school year.
In times of budget uncertainty, districts that are heavily dependent on Impact Aid often ask the Education Department to process their payments early—but in this case, there was no one around to send out the checks, said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. That meant some Impact Aid districts were beginning to hit the panic button, he said, with at least one worried about making payroll.
With the shutdown concluded, Mr. Forkenbrock expects that his association will be able to work with the department to get Impact Aid dollars first to the districts that need them most.
“We were right on the bubble, in terms of whether or not there was going to be major damage,” Mr. Forkenbrock said.
Impact Aid districts, which tend to be more reliant on federal funding than others, are closely watching the debate over whether to turn off sequestration, Mr. Forkenbrock added. Districts were largely able to handle the first round of cuts by delaying purchases and tapping reserve funds, he said. But if the cuts to education spending get deeper, those districts could run into real trouble.
“We could have some schools that would have to lay off teachers in the middle of the school year,” he said.
Staff Writer Christina A. Samuels contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as K-12 Advocates Remain Braced For Fiscal Fight