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Government Shutdown Pulse Check: For Education, Worst is Yet to Come

By Alyson Klein — October 01, 2013 4 min read
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We’re more than 12 hours into the government shutdown (your cheat sheet here.) What’s the impact on school districts, states, and general Edu-land so far? Mostly a lot of watching, waiting—and nervously looking ahead to the fiscal fight that’s around the corner later this month: raising the federal debt ceiling.

For now, school districts and states still aren’t feeling major effects from a short-term shutdown.

“Right now we’re not seeing anything,” said John Barge, the state schools’ chief in Georgia. He noted, for example, that states can still access their federal Race to the Top grant money. He added that, longer term, there might be some ramifications.

In the short run, Terry Holliday, the commissioner of education in Kentucky, is worried about getting the state’s questions answered by federal officials. “I told everybody, ‘Don’t bother to call [the federal] Education Department. Nobody is there to answer the phone,” he said.

Kentucky was scheduled to have a call on its No Child Left Behind Act waiver monitoring that will likely be delayed if the shutdown continues, Holliday said. If the call is postponed, “we won’t know what we need to know to tweak [our plan] as we gear up for waiver renewal.”

The shutdown may be a bigger deal for Head Start centers, 23 of which were expecting a round of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant funding that will be delayed. It’s unclear how many children will actually be affected—the Head Start centers can dip into their reserves, for example, to cover the lapse, a spokesman said. But, of course, the shutdown is coming on top of a 5 percent hit to Head Start through sequestration—those across-the-board cuts to federal spending that went into effect in March. Still, at least one Head Start center, in North Florida, has had to close its doors, according to my colleague Christina Samuels of Early Years fame.

Meanwhile, schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education will remain open during the shutdown. Like Title I and special education, BIE schools are “forward-funded”, meaning that schools have most of their money already in hand. Transportation, nutrition, and safety services are also uninterrupted. More from Lesli Maxwell over at Learning the Language.

Want to know what’s going on with key nutrition programs, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC? Check out Ross Brenneman’s post at Rules for Engagement. But the quick version: Food stamps should be fine. But WIC only has about a month of reserve funds left.

Edu-data nerds may be the biggest casualty of the shutdown so far. The shutdown has postponed the release of the NAEP-TIMSS linking study, a kind of Christmas morning for education researchers. Catherine Gewertz has more at Curriculum Matters.

To add insult to injury, the Institute of Education Sciences websites (and most of its sister sites) are down “due to a lapse in appropriations.” That prompted a grumpy tweet from Holly Hacker, education reporter at the Dallas Morning News and self-described “data evangelist.”

Sarah Sparks has more—including a screen shot!—at Inside School Research.

The main Education Department’s website, Ed.gov, is not being updated during the shutdown, per a message on its main page.

Debt Ceiling, Sequestration

But the worst may be yet to come, warns Holliday of Kentucky.

“The government shutdown is a minor distraction compared to sequestration,” he said, referring to the 5 percent across-the-board cuts that hit school districts last year.

Democratic lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, are hoping to reverse the sequester cuts—but that’s going to be a tall order. Meanwhile, the country will hit its borrowing limit in the middle of the month, prompting the need for further congressional action to raise the debt ceiling. (Here’s your interactive explanation of the perennial fiscal uncertainty.)

If Congress fails to raise the debt limit, that could have a trickle down effect on state bond ratings, as well as on district credit. “If the cost of borrowing money is higher, that’s going to impact the overall budget of the school district,” Holliday said.

He also had some harsh words for Congress: “I don’t think this crowd realizes the long-term impacts they are going to have on this nation,” Holliday said.

John White, Louisiana’s state chief, had a similar take. Sequestration, he said, has been much more harmful than the current shutdown, particularly for vulnerable student populations.

“While this temporary shutdown doesn’t have as a big of an impact as people in Washington, D.C. might think, the overall dysfunction of government has already taken its toll on our schools,” White told my colleague, Andrew Ujifusa of State Ed Watch.

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