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Debt Ceiling Deal: Big Questions for K-12

By Michele McNeil — August 01, 2011 4 min read
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Education advocates are trying to take stock of what the congressional vote to lift the federal debt ceiling—and the belt-tightening that comes along with it—will mean for K-12 education. And it’s not at all clear.

According to news reports and congressional documents, the deal places 10-year caps on federal spending, including a $7 billion reduction in fiscal 2012 spending below current levels. (Fiscal 2012 starts on Oct. 1.) It creates a new congressional committee charged with finding $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. If the committee doesn’t do that, failure triggers automatic cuts, or “sequestration” of funds across most agencies.

The Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of 85 education groups, estimated such cuts would amount to 6.7 percent in most agencies, which for the U.S. Department of Education would translate into about $3 billion. That’s a lot of money. But the legislation seems designed to force this new committee to be successful in finding savings.

Interestingly, the legislative vehicle for the entire debt ceiling proposal is an “education sciences” bill that serves as a technical amendment to fix some problems with contracts extending the life of the regional educational labs. Congressional leaders had to find a live bill into which they could insert the compromise, and this is what they picked.

We don’t know how this is going to shake out more specifically for K-12 because all Congress has done so far is set spending caps—or, how big the budget pie is. In essence, the pie has gotten smaller for next budget year, leaving fewer dollars to be spread among agencies, including the Education Department. And a decade’s worth of spending caps is bound to put pressure on federal education spending.

In looking at the new cap on federal discretionary spending of $7 billion below current levels, the Committee for Education Funding points out the current levels already reflect $1.25 billion in education 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 today in a letter to members of Congress.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., doesn’t think this looks good. In an Associated Press story, he forecasts that the spending cuts are “going to make life much more difficult for” for public schools. However, a spokeswoman for Miller couldn’t elaborate on exactly how schools would feel the effects, or what the magnitude or timing would be.

In general, however, 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 fund K-12 education, which is a huge financial responsibility.

Andy Rotherham, (a.k.a. eduwonk), told me the deal is “going to create a lot of problems for ed. down the road. Education mostly dodged a bullet here but that won’t last absent something happening on entitlements and revenue.” Rotherham, a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, is referring to the massive federal spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security, and the absence in this debt deal of any revenue-raising measures, such as raising taxes or closing tax loopholes.

Throughout the negotiations, it was clear that protecting education was a priority for President Barack Obama. (And indeed, the big fight over Pell Grants ended with more funding for this college-aid program for low-income students.) In remarks after the deal was announced Sunday night, President Barack 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.”

Before the vote on Tuesday, 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, my colleague Sean Cavanagh reports.

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 debt. 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,” Van Roekel said, “and it’s offensive to the students they served who will soon be piling in to overcrowded classrooms, riding longer bus routes to school, and will find narrowed curriculums when the school bell rings in a few weeks.”

Photo: Vice President Joe Biden arrives at the Senate on Aug. 1 to help finalize the debt deal agreed on by Republicans and Democrats to avert a default. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

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