School & District Management

K-12 Cuts Loom as Deficit Deal Eludes Congress

By Alyson Klein — December 01, 2011 4 min read
Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction co chair, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), scales a staircase followed by police and media, but doesn't answer questions, after participating in a last minute meeting with colleagues at Senator John Kerry's in the Russell Senate Office Building, on Capitol Hill on November 21.

Education advocates and local school officials are nervously eyeing a series of draconian cuts set to hit just about every federal program in 2013—including Title I, special education, and other key K-12 priorities—in the wake of a special congressional committee’s failure to come up with long-term recommendations for how to cut the federal deficit.

The U.S. Department of Education, in particular, could see an across-the-board cut of 7.8 percent as of January 2013 under the process created over the summer as a consequence since the 12-member Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, or “supercommittee,” failed to craft a plan for cutting at least $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit over the next 10 years.

For the Education Department, the cuts imposed under the process known as sequestration would amount to a $3.5 billion dip from the fiscal 2011 discretionary budget.

To put that number in perspective, it is more than states get right now for Improving Teacher Quality State Grants, a program that is funded at $2.5 billion, but a little less than the $4 billion competitive grant total for the Race to the Top under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The federal cuts would come on top of major reductions already in place at the state and local level, particularly now that vast majority of the funding from the ARRA and last year’s Education Jobs Fund has dried up.

Job Losses

The National Education Association, a 3.2 million-member union, is estimating that sequestration would result in the loss of more than 24,000 jobs in elementary and secondary education.

“This is a huge deal,” said Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the union. These are “dramatic cuts that will be felt by every student and every school district at a time when state budget [cuts] are raising the importance of the limited federal dollars that are flowing.”

The possibility of significantly slashed federal aid is worrisome for Paul Durand, the superintendent of the 1,600-student Rockford Area school district in Minnesota. The proposed federal cuts “would come on the backs of issues we’ve had in our state,” he said. “School districts in Minnesota are having to borrow money to make sure we can pay our bills.” Additional education cuts at the federal level would be “very shortsighted and poor policy,” he said.

Still, observers say the cuts are far from a done deal. Congress has a whole year before the major reductions are triggered. And lawmakers may well develop a plan that would scrap the programmatic spending cuts, which are set to go into effect not just for domestic programs, but for defense, too.

But a solution may not be around the corner. It’s possible lawmakers may not come up with a plan to stop sequestration until the eleventh hour, likely after the 2012 election, said Joel Packer, a veteran education lobbyist who is now the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington.

“I think we are in for a yearlong fight about sequestration and everything else budget-related,” Mr. Packer said. “My personal guess is that nothing happens until after the election.” That may well make the cuts to domestic programs, including K-12 education, a centerpiece of the presidential campaign, Mr. Packer added.

But that would leave school districts in the dark about their federal funding, which can complicate local decisions, Mr. Durand said.

“The not knowing what’s happening is bad because you can’t plan and you need to be able to plan,” he said. “All of these things have a real impact on children.”

Warnings Sounded

Democrats and Republicans alike bemoaned the coming cuts.

“Because the supercommittee failed to live up to its responsibility, education programs that affect young Americans across the country now face across-the-board cuts,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., the chairman of the House panel that oversees K-12 spending, is also worried about the impact of sequestration.

“Blind, across-the-board cuts may sound easy, but they can be problematic if they hurt programs that are efficient and don’t address the bloated, inefficient ones,” he said.

District advocates worry that lawmakers may move to spare defense, but not education.

“If we get [the cuts], that is what would be very damaging for schools,” said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Va. She also warned that if programs such as defense were exempted from the cuts, that could mean the cuts to education would be even deeper.

Another Budget Battle

Meanwhile, lawmakers are still struggling to complete the spending bills for fiscal 2012, which started back on Oct. 1. The Education Department and other agencies have been financed at last year’s levels under a stopgap measure approved last month. But that measure will expire on Dec. 16.

The House and Senate appropriations committees have very different visions for financing the Education Department in fiscal year 2012.

A bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee would freeze funding for key formula programs, such as Title I grants for disadvantaged students and special education, while maintaining level funding for Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation grant program, and other administration priorities.

A House bill would increase Title I grants to districts to $15.5 billion, a rise of $1 billion. And special education, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, would get a $1.2 billion hike, to $13.8 billion. But it would eliminate funding for Race to the Top, the School Improvement grants, and other signature Obama programs.

A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 2011 edition of Education Week as K-12 Cuts Looming as ‘Supercommittee’ Stalls on Deficit Plan

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