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GAO Report: Sequestration Forced Program, Professional Development Cuts

The investigative arm of Congress has found that across-the-board federal budget cuts last year forced some school districts to cut academic and after-school programs, scale back professional development, and delay physical and technology upgrades. 

Those details were part of a Government Accountability Office report released on May 28 looking at how federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, prepared for and implemented the 2013 sequestration. In particular, it looked at the impact of sequestration on Title I and Impact Aid funding.

Title I and Impact Aid made up 72 percent of fiscal year 2013 funding for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education before sequestration took effect. Title I aims to help low-income students, and Impact Aid goes to school districts affected by federal activities, including those that enroll a number of students whose parents are on active duty in the armed services, or have a high concentration of students residing on Indian lands. 

Sequestration resulted in 5 percent cuts to those programs, according to the report.  The effects of the cuts were not uniform across the  board, but school districts that relied on such aid were forced to make significant changes, the GAO found. Many were also dealing with the fallout from cuts in state funding from the previous year that had forced them to lay off workers.

The GAO's review  focused on seven districts that received money from the two programs. For Title I impacts, it looked at districts in Mississippi, Texas, and Ohio.  And for the effects of Impact Aid, it looked at four districts in Arizona, South Dakota, and Texas.   

Districts that received Title I funds generally felt the effects of the cuts later than those receiving Impact Aid, primarily because of the time of the year that the money was disbursed. Sequestration affected Impact Aid schools in the 2012- 2103 school year, while it affected Title 1 schools in 2013-2014.

In general, Title I schools reported cuts to academic programs, staffing, transportation, and professional development for teachers.  In one Title I district, for example, officials had to reduce the number math and reading specialists who provided additional instruction for students. Two of the districts said they had to cut professional development for teaching staff at a time when academic standards were changing.

Two districts said the cuts contributed to a reduction in after-school programs or delays in the implementation of some academic programs to boost academic performance. All said it contributed to delays in physical and technological upgrades.

The districts that lost Impact Aid money said they, too, had to delay professional development opportunities, increase class sizes, defer upgrades, and reduce transportation for students.

Three of those districts reduced staff through attrition and by not filling vacated positions. One reported having to cut the equivalent of 14 full-time positions. Four reduced professional development opportunities for teachers at a time when teachers were dealing with curriculum changes.  Three districts increased class sizes, on average, by one or two students, and three reduced music, arts, and athletic programs. One school district that served a large American Indian population ended up slashing a popular program on Navajo language and culture as a result of the cuts.

Overall, the elementary and secondary education office lost 10 staff positions due to sequestration. Cuts also resulted in a reduction in travel expenses and increased workload for office staff.

The full report can be found here. The effects on the OESE begin on page 58. 

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