The Fiscal Face-Off

The budget uncertainty that education advocates and school districts have lived with for the past two years doesn't seem likely to go away anytime soon. Here's a breakdown of what you need to know.

The Fiscal Face-Off

The budget uncertainty that education advocates and school districts have lived with for the past two years doesn't seem likely to go away anytime soon. The across-the-board cuts known as "sequestration" that went into effect last March are still in place. And now, a spending showdown driven by conservative Republicans in Congress over whether to defund the president's landmark health-care law means a government shutdown could be in the offing. Plus, there's likely to be yet another fight in October over raising the federal debt ceiling. Here's a handy guide to what's happened so far and what to watch for.

Big Losers From Sequestration

  • Title I grants to districts: Loss of $725.8 million, bringing program to $13.7 billion
  • Special education state grants: Loss of $578.9 million, bringing program to $10.9 billion
  • Head Start: Loss of roughly $400 million, bringing program to $7.6 billion
  • Impact Aid: Loss of $57.7 million, bringing program to $1.09 billion

Exempt: Medicaid, Children's Health Insurance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, school lunch and school breakfast programs, student loan programs (except for a small increase in origination fees), Pell Grants, among others.

Sources: U.S. Department of Education; Committee for Education Funding; Education Week

Budget Wrangling: A Timeline

This fall is hardly the first instance of budget brinksmanship in recent years.

Source: Education Week

Frequently Asked Questions

What's this about a government shutdown? How could that happen?
Congress hasn't finished its spending bills for fiscal year 2014, which officially starts on Oct. 1. Lawmakers rarely wrap up appropriations legislation on time. Instead, they typically pass a stopgap measure—called a continuing resolution or "CR"—that extends funding for most programs at current levels for a few months, giving lawmakers time to work out their differences. But this year, conservative Republicans are trying to use the CR as an opportunity to defund the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. That's something the Democratically-controlled U.S. Senate isn't likely to support. So we may be at a stalemate.

What happens to education programs if there's a government shutdown?
That's a tough one. The U.S. Department of Education wasn't offering specifics last week. Cameron French, a spokesman for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, said the department is updating its shutdown plans. He added that there's still time to avoid a shutdown. Meanwhile, while much federal K-12 aid was distributed over the summer, state education agencies and districts would likely still feel the effects of a shutdown: There would be fewer folks at the U.S. Department of Education to field their questions about issues like waiver implementation, for example.

Have the U.S. Senate and House even gotten started with their spending bills?
Sort of. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill earlier this year that would include new money for early-childhood education, at the request of the Obama administration. The House Appropriations Committee never officially unveiled its spending bill for fiscal year 2014—and there was wide speculation that it would have slashed education spending significantly, so lawmakers balked at voting on the cuts.

What's in this stopgap measure for schools?
The continuing resolution would keep spending on key programs, such as special education and money for disadvantaged students, at last year's levels. And it would keep in place "sequestration," the roughly 5 percent across-the-board-cut to domestic spending in place.

Sequestration? Wait a minute, I thought we got that over with already?
Yes, the sequestration cuts initially went into effect in March. But they're slated to stay in place for the next decade, unless Congress is able to come to a long-term agreement on the right mix of taxes and spending cuts to rein in the deficit to everyone's satisfaction. So far, that sort of broad agreement has proved elusive. And, given the budget situation outlined above, it doesn't look like lawmakers are likely to be in a compromising mood anytime soon.

So the cuts have already been implemented then? How bad were they?
That's still hard to say. The impact appears to be uneven. About 57,000 children lost access to Head Start, an early-childhood program, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Some school districts that receive Impact Aid money—which helps districts make up for tax revenue lost due to a federal presence nearby, such as a military base or Native American reservation—have had to make some serious cutbacks. Thirty-one out of 45 districts surveyed by the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools cut staff positions, either through layoffs or attrition. But many other districts didn't feel the effects as keenly, in part because state revenues have begun to rebound from the recession and many states boosted funding for K-12. Instead of laying off massive numbers of staff, districts were more likely to increase class sizes, cut positions through attrition, or delay technology purchases, according to a survey released in August by the American Association of School Administrators. Plus, the federal share of K-12 spending is fairly small to begin with, making up roughly 10 percent of funding nationally.

Are education advocates still fighting the cuts?
Yes. Education advocates are still calling on Congress to reverse sequestration for domestic programs. In fact, the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition, is planning to hold a "bake sale" on Capitol Hill this month to draw attention to the cuts. But it isn't going to be an easy argument to make. Republicans have pointed out that the sequester was a lot less dire for schools than the administration originally predicted. That's left education advocates in a tough spot.

There is just a ton of uncertainty. Will it ever go away?
Don't hold your breath. Once Congress finishes with the CR, there will be yet another fight, likely in October, over raising the debt ceiling. And then Congress will have to finish its spending bills. Many advocates see budget stalemates as likely at least until the 2016 elections bring new faces to Congress and the White House.

Reporting & Analysis: Alyson Klein | Visualization & Design: Megan Garner and Doris Nhan

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week