Education advocates are bracing for the fallout from the eleventh-hour congressional vote to lift the federal debt ceiling—and the significant belt-tightening that comes along with it.
But how deeply K-12 education will be affected, and when, is not at all clear.
The hard-fought deal enacted last week to avert a U.S. default places 10-year caps on federal spending, including a $7 billion overall reduction from current levels in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. It creates a new bipartisan congressional committee charged with finding $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. Failure to come up with or enact such reductions would trigger automatic cuts, or “sequestration,” of $984 billion spread across most agencies.
The Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of 85 education groups, estimated those automatic cuts would amount to 6.7 percent in most agencies, which for the U.S. Department of Education would translate into about $3 billion annually.
Education Department officials are uncertain whether the bipartisan committee will recommend cuts to the agency’s funding. And it’s also too early to say how the “trigger” provisions that would force cuts across government would affect the department’s programs.
The uncertainties stem from a debt deal that sets broad parameters for federal spending—in essence, shrinking the size of the pie—but leaves it up to the bipartisan committee, and eventually Congress, to find specific budget savings. One thing for certain: The pie has gotten smaller by $7 billion for the next budget year, leaving fewer dollars to be spread among agencies, including the Education Department.
In looking at that new cap on federal discretionary spending, the Committee for Education Funding points out the department’s spending levels already reflect $1.25 billion in cuts imposed in the current-year budget battle that consumed Congress a few months ago.
“We fear that education programs will face multiple rounds of cuts under the initial reduction in appropriated funds proposed in the [debt-reduction] bill and from the joint committee’s plan or from sequestration,” the committee wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to members of Congress.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said in an Associated Press story that the spending cuts are “going to make life much more difficult” for public schools. But a spokeswoman for Rep. Miller couldn’t elaborate on exactly how schools would feel the effects, or what the magnitude or timing would be.
In general, any deal that puts further pressure on state budgets—such as by reducing federal funds that go to states—will only make it tougher for states to finance K-12 education, which is a significant financial responsibility.
Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder and partner at the Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting firm in Washington, said the deal is “going to create a lot of problems for education down the road. Education mostly dodged a bullet here, but that won’t last absent something happening on entitlements and revenue.” Mr. Rotherham was referring to the massive federal spending on programs such as Social Security and the absence in the debt deal of revenue-raising measures, such as increasing taxes or closing tax loopholes.
If the special committee does not find enough savings, and if the automatic across-the-board cuts are triggered, some programs will be exempt, including Medicaid, the state-federal health-care program for low-income people, and Women, Infants,and Children, or WIC, programs.
But protecting those programs means other areas of the federal budget—such as Education Department spending—would take a bigger hit, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“K-12 has at least three to four more tough years ahead,” said Mr. Hess, who writes an opinion blog for Education Week.
Many states, reeling from the economic blow caused by the recession, have made significant cuts in spending on education over the past few years. If the debt-ceiling agreement brings deep reductions in federal spending on education, it will force states to make even more difficult choices in the years ahead, said Chris Minnich, the senior membership director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington.
State officials are most worried about future cuts crafted by the bipartisan committee, or brought on by the failure to enact them.
Many of the most innovative efforts to improve school quality and student achievement are being driven at the state level, Mr. Minnich said. Those ventures—in teacher evaluation, testing, and academic standards—are ambitious, but also costly, and they could be imperiled if the federal cuts undermine state budgets, he noted.
“States are some of the ones leading these reforms,” Mr. Minnich said. “We need to hold onto these core investments.”
Throughout the debt-ceiling negotiations, it was clear that protecting education was a priority for President Barack Obama. And, indeed, a big fight over Pell Grants ended with more funding for the college-aid program for low-income students.
In remarks after the deal was announced July 31, Mr. Obama said: “The result would be the lowest level of annual domestic spending since Dwight Eisenhower was president—but at a level that still allows us to make job-creating investments in things like education and research.” Aside from the additional money set aside for Pell Grants, however, the new debt law does not spell out any specific increases in funding for education programs.
In response to last week’s congressional deal, the two major teachers’ unions voiced concerns about the possibility of deep future cuts to education under the agreement, but they said avoiding default was critical for the economy.
The National Education Association worried that student financial aid and funding for education programs could end up targets of the bipartisan congressional committee created to address the nation’s overspending. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel suggested the deal was tilted in favor of protecting wealthy Americans from tax increases.
“It’s offensive to the cafeteria workers, librarians, and teachers who got pink slips as state budgets dried up,” Mr. Van Roekel said, “and it’s offensive to the students they served who will soon be piling into overcrowded classrooms, riding longer bus routes to school, and will find narrowed curriculums when the school bell rings in a few weeks.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the deal “will likely lead to huge cuts in programs for children, seniors, and those who can least afford it.”
Assistant Editor Sean Cavanagh contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as Debt Deal’s Likely Fruit: Cuts to K-12