The federal government is careening toward a shutdown at the end of the month, thanks in part to an impasse in Congress over whether to fund Planned Parnethood. But most school districts, and many federal education programs, wouldn’t feel an immediate pinch if the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies temporarily shut their doors.
The two major exceptions: the Head Start program, an early-childhood program for low-income children funded through the Department of Health and Human Services and Impact Aid, the Education Department program that helps districts with a big federal presence (such as a military base or a Native American reservation).
During the last shutdown, in 2013, thousands of children were temporarily kicked out of Head Start programs that were slated to receive federal grants in the early fall. In fact, the budget impasse that year was expected to impact about 19,000 Head Start students, and about 23 different grantees. Centers in six states, serving about 7,000 children closed right away. Luckily, the Arnold Foundation, which focuses in part on education, stepped in, offering $10 million in emergency funding to keep the centers open.
Still, Head Start advocates are nervously watching the action at the Capitol.
“Tens of thousands of Head Start children are on the edge of suffering devastating flashback,” said Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association. “Two years ago, the budget impasse threatened to close Head Start doors and deny access to as many as 19,000 children. Echoing the cautionary tale, ‘history repeats itself,’ Washington’s budget battles are once again threatening to displace America’s most at-risk children. We are hopeful our elected officials will not forget lessons learned and will get the nation’s fiscal house in order to ensure no Head Start child experiences an interruption on their path to kindergarten readiness.”
Some districts that receive impact aid are in a similar boat. About 100 districts of the 1,200 or so impact-aid recipients asked for early funding, a sign that the money is a key component to their annual budget, said Jocelyn Bissonnette, the director of government relations at the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.
A shutdown that lasts only a couple days probably wouldn’t be a big hit, she said. But a protracted shutdown could force a handful of districts that rely heavily on impact aid to dip into reserves or even borrow money. And the closure would come on top of a couple years of flat funding for the Impact Aid program, even as enrollments and need grows, she added.
“We have a couple districts that are nervous about payroll in October, November” if they don’t get their payments, Bisonnette said.
And then, of course, there are the employees at the Education Department. More than 90 percent of them didn’t report to work during the last shutdown, making it tough for state education agencies with questions for the feds. And there were other snafus—such as problems delivering applications for Race to the Top districts grants.