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How Yet Another Government Shutdown Showdown Could Impact Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 30, 2017 3 min read
President Donald Trump speaks to, from left, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The recent debt-ceiling deal saw Trump and Democratic leaders on the same side of a contentious issue.
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Get ready for another game of chicken.

If lawmakers don’t take some kind of action by Dec. 8, major parts of the government—including the U.S. Department of Education—are going to grind to a halt. That’s because a deal President Donald Trump brokered with Democrats earlier this year increased the feds’ borrowing limit through December. But lawmakers now need to increase that limit again, and soon, if they don’t want parts of the federal government to close. And remember, in the Senate, even if all 52 Republicans vote to raise the debt ceiling, they may need eight Democratic votes to avoid a possible filibuster and avert a shutdown.

First, let’s deal with various consequences of a shutdown for schools. We highlighted those possible ramifications for education in August, the last time we were on the verge of a shutdown.

  • Overall, a brief closure of the federal government wouldn’t touch schools all that much. For example, a short shutdown, say a few days, wouldn’t affect big formula programs from the education department like Title I.
  • However, in the past, Impact Aid (federal funding that goes to districts whose tax base is affected by federal activities) has been more vulnerable in the short term to shutdowns.
  • Based on precedent, in the first week of a shutdown about nine out of 10 U.S. Department of Education employees would have to stay home. But top officials, like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, would still have to come into work.
  • If a shutdown lasts longer than a week, however, districts could start to feel the pain.

So are there any education-related issues that make avoiding a shutdown more likely? Yes.

As the Washington Post’s Amber Phillips spelled out earlier this week, Democrats could insist that in exchange for their votes to keep Washington ticking, Congress would enshrine the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program into law. DACA provides protections for about 800,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children. was put in place by the Obama administration without congressional authorization, but Trump announced earlier this year that the program would end early next year unless lawmakers made DACA permanent.

Students and educators who are currently covered by DACA are watching the issue closely. About 250,000 children have become DACA-eligible since the program began.

There are proposals from both Democrats and Republicans to lock in DACA, but nothing’s gotten serious traction yet. It remains to be seen whether Trump and GOP congressional leaders would balk at hitching DACA to a government funding bill.

Then there are current government spending levels, which are restricted by mandatory budget caps. For the next federal budget year, Trump and GOP lawmakers want a big boost for Department of Defense spending, and cuts to non-defense domestic spending. More specifically, Trump and House Republicans want cuts to education spending, while the Senate GOP plan would keep that funding level virtually flat. Democrats oppose this. And a coalition of groups in favor of lifting the caps for non-defense as well as defense spending wrote to lawmakers this week urging “equally balanced” relief between the two types of spending.

Remember, Republicans may need Democrats in the Senate to have enough votes to keep Washington open. How will all this play into the shutdown debate? We don’t know yet.

If Republicans get a tax bill done in the next several days, it could make reaching an agreement to keep the government open a lot easier. That’s in part because getting the tax bill done would clear up more space on the congressional calendar. It’s also possible that lawmakers could pass a short-term measure to keep the government open through the end of 2017, especially if they haven’t finished up tax legislation by Dec. 8, in order to give themselves more time.