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Advocates Push Back Against Proposed Education Cuts

Congress is technically on a break this week (called "recess"), but education advocates are not. They are organizing call-in campaigns and getting information out to their members to protest the more than $5 billion in education cuts passed by the U.S. House of Representatives over the weekend as part of a measure that would fund the government until Sept. 30.

The House would seem to be on a collision course with the U.S. Senate, which is controlled by Democrats and has not taken up the bill yet.

The House measure is for fiscal year 2011, which technically started back on Oct. 1. Right now, the government has been operating under a series of extension measures funding all programs at fiscal year 2010 levels. The latest of those expires on March 4.

Lawmakers have, essentially, three options between now and then:

1) Come to some sort of an agreement on the budget. This is going to be tough because Republicans and Democrats could not be further apart. Senate Democratic leaders have pledged to resist the cuts proposed by the House. And President Barack Obama has said he will veto the bill if it reaches his desk in its current form.

2) Pass another short-term extension measure to give everyone more time to work out their differences. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the house minority leader, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader in the Senate, are both pushing for this option. But Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the speaker of the House, said he won't accept a short-term extension that doesn't include some cuts, while both Reid and Pelosi are pushing to keep the current funding levels in place on the temporary bill. So that's going to make things tough.

3) Allow the government to shut down. No one is especially enthusiastic about this option, but advocates say it's looking increasingly likely.

Republican lawmakers say the cuts are needed to get the nation's spending under control.

This week, in preparation for what could be a big spending showdown, education advocates are making their case to lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, to resist the cuts.

For instance, Head Start is targeted for one of the biggest reductions: $1 billion in a budget of about $7.2 billion. Over the weekend, several early-childhood advocacy organizations held an audio-conference to explain to their members what these cuts would mean. There were over 1,000 people registered for the call, according to Danielle Ewen, the director of childcare and early-education policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, in Washington. The organizations are also holding a "Senate call-in" day on Thursday, encouraging supporters to reach out to their senators.

The proposed cuts would be one of the largest in the history of the program, Ewen told me.

"We've been trying hard to let people know this is real," she said. Some programs would almost certainly have to close classrooms and make big cuts in quality and hours of service, such as going from five to four days.

Many Head Start parents will have to make other child-care arrangements, which could be difficult if not impossible for already-strapped households, she added. Lack of child-care makes it harder for parents to look for work or go back to school, she said. Plus, low-income children will be behind their more advantaged peers in kindergarten, setting them on the path to an achievement gap, she said.

States and localities won't be able to make up for the lack of federal funding, she added.

"There's no other money to serve these children," she said. "This is the make or break for a lot of families. There's no fallback for them."

For its part, the National Education Association, a 3.2 million member union, has figured out just how much the cuts will impact each state and is getting that information out to its members.

The federal funding cuts are "the tipping point for our members at the local level. They only add another layer of crisis" on top of other reductions proposed by states and localities, said Mary Kusler, the NEA's manager of federal advocacy.

For instance, the measure would cut nearly $700 million from Title I grants to districts.

"That's a loss of jobs, that's the elimination of educators from classrooms around the country who work with the students most in need," she said. "This has become very personal for our membership." She said the union is encouraging its members to talk about how the cuts would impact their students to "put a face" on the budget numbers.

The NEA is particularly looking out for Title I grants to districts, special education funding, and Pell Grants. But it is unhappy about all of the cuts, including the $336.6 million to the School Improvement Grants program and $500 million from the Improving Teacher Quality State Grants, Kusler said.

Choosing which programs to prioritize when so many are being hit is like "choosing among your children," she explained.

I'm looking to connect with other groups and organizations that are using grassroots lobbying techniques to persuade Congress to reject the cuts, and also groups that are pushing lawmakers to adopt them. Please shoot me an email or hit up the comments section if you're an advocate or member of a group working for, or against, the bill.

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