The arrival of the March 1 deadline for automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration had policymakers and administrators from Washington to local school districts bracing for the possible effects. The outcome—political and financial—was unclear as of press time. Here, though, is a primer on what educators should know about “the sequester.” For up-to-the-minute developments on the federal budget crisis, follow Education Week‘s Politics K-12 blog.
What exactly is “sequestration”? Sequestration is a series of across-the-board cuts to a broad range of federal programs, including those in the U.S. Department of Education, that was designed to hit on March 1, unless a last-ditch effort by Congress and the Obama administration stopped them. Programs in the Education Department would be cut by about 5.3 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office. The cuts wouldn’t be just for this year, either. They’re aimed at chopping $1.2 trillion out of the federal deficit over the next decade.
Where did these cuts come from? The threat of cuts was put in place as part of a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling back in August 2011. The cuts would affect both military spending, typically favored by Republicans, and domestic programs, typically favored by Democrats. The cuts were supposed to be so dire and distasteful to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that Congress and the administration would be forced to work together on a long-term deficit-reduction deal to avert them. But that hadn’t happened as of last week, and it looked as though the cuts would become a reality, at least for a while. (Congress did delay the cuts once, as part of a deal to avert the “fiscal cliff” at the start of the year.)
When would school districts be affected? Most school districts wouldn’t get squeezed right away because key formula-funding programs—including Title I grants for districts and special education—are what’s called “forward funded.” Schools wouldn’t feel the pinch until the start of the 2013-14 school year. Still, many districts are already in the process of crafting their budgets for the coming school year, and they’d like to know what their funding will look like. The looming cuts had already made planning tough.
Would any school districts be affected right away? Some districts would get hit fairly soon under sequestration—some of them substantially. Among the hardest hit would be those in the Impact Aid program, which helps some 1,200 districts nationwide. Most impact-aid districts have a lot of Native American students or students whose parents work on military bases, or they may have federal land in or near the district. Their next federal payment, likely due out in April, would probably be smaller. But that would be unlikely to translate into widespread layoffs, according to John Forkenbrock, the president of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. Districts have known about the possible cuts for a long time and have prepared, he said, by doing things like delaying technology purchases. The big problem for impact-aid districts may come next year.
What about all those numbers the Obama administration is throwing out when it comes to job losses? It’s true that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs if the cuts are carried out. That number is pretty scary—the Obama administration has clearly been trying to get the public riled up against the cuts. But it’s tough to say how accurate the administration’s estimates are at this point.
So what will the cuts actually mean in districts? School districts spend a majority of their funding on personnel, so federal cuts could very well translate into layoffs. But a lot would depend on how states and districts decide to implement the cuts. The American Association of School Administrators conducted a survey on sequestration back in July. Superintendents told the group they anticipated reducing professional development, cutting programs, and laying off some staff members. The bottom line? Schools have had time to prepare, but in many cases, the cuts would come on top of state and local reductions. Hard and fast figures on potential job losses aren’t available yet.
Are any U.S. Department of Education programs exempt from the cuts? Yes. Student loans and Pell Grants, which help needy students cover the cost of postsecondary education, are exempt.
What about early-childhood-education programs? The Head Start program could face a cut right away, but it’s unclear just how individual grantees would be affected. Under sequestration, Head Start programs that do not offer summer services either would end their current school year earlier than planned or delay the start of the next school year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says. Year-round programs likely would decide not to fill openings after children age out. And grantees could also cut transportation services.
Are any other federal programs for children safe from the sequester? Many are. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families would not get cut, and neither would most school nutrition programs and child-health programs.
What about Education Department employees? Will they be furloughed? Secretary Duncan says it’s a possibility.
What about “maintenance of effort” and other technical issues, such as the state school improvement set-aside? Advocates have been asking about such implications for months, but the administration has yet to give them a good answer.
What happens now? As of Education Week‘s deadline, congressional leaders hadn’t put forth a serious, bipartisan bill that would actually avert or reverse sequestration. Congress still has another looming fiscal deadline: March 27. That’s when a temporary measure funding most of the federal government expires. Lawmakers may figure out a way to deal with sequestration by then.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Sequestration and Education: Frequently Asked Questions