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What Would a Government Shutdown Do to Education?

So if you've picked up a newspaper in the past week or so, you know that the federal budget is in major flux, with the prospect of a government shutdown.

Should education programs be worried?

While a possible shutdown is probably not going to be a picnic for anyone, if the past is any guide, most school districts and states wouldn't feel an immediate pinch.

Why? Well, many formula programs in the department, including the all-important Title I grants to districts and special education, are "forward-funded." That means the money for this fiscal year that Congress is currently squabbling over—fiscal year 2011—isn't slated to make its way to districts until July of this year. That would have been the time frame even if Congress had passed its spending bills on time.

Nancy Grasmick, the superintendent of schools in Maryland, who was on the job back in 1995 and 1996, the last time the federal government shut down, said it wasn't that disruptive for state education.

"We were very concerned about the federal government shutdown, and followed the negotiations closely," she said in an e-mail. "But, in the end, we didn't find that the shutdown disrupted the work we do. The federal funding came through as promised and projected."

One possible exception: Impact aid, which goes to school districts that are home to military bases and other federal programs. Impact aid is one major formula program in the Education Department that follows the same schedule as the regular federal fiscal year—it isn't forward-funded.

Many districts that depend on the aid have already applied for—and received—a significant portion of their funding through early funding requests. And during the previous shutdown, impact aid advocates persuaded the department to temporarily shift money from forward-funded programs to help finance impact-aid requests until the government was up and running again. They are already talking to lawmakers and the Obama administration about using a similar strategy this year, if necessary.

It's important to note that folks are still hoping for a budget deal, so no one has outlined exactly how a shutdown would effect the Education Department just yet.

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the department, told me yesterday the department is updating its shutdown plans.

Some budget background: The House of Representatives wants major cuts to the tune of over $60 billion, including more than $5 billion for education. The Senate ideally would like to keep spending at current levels. And the president has threatened to veto any bill with major reductions he thinks will hurt the economy.

The clock is ticking because a deal, even a short-term one that gives lawmakers more time to debate, needs to be reached by March 4, or the government will shut down.

So is that going to happen or not? Senate Democrats are looking to try to find a compromise, according to this story, which cautions that it's still too early to say definitively whether there will be a budget deal or what it would look like.

So I guess the basic answer here on the shutdown is: Maybe it will happen, maybe not, stay tuned.

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