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K-12 Advocates to Closely Follow Debt Committee

Think the deficit debate ended with the agreement to raise the debt ceiling? Think again. Congress is, in fact, just getting started. And some education advocates worry there are many, many opportunities along the way to slash K-12 spending.

Those who followed the debt ceiling deal probably remember that it set up a "super committee" of 12 lawmakers (three Senate Democrats, three Senate Republicans, three House Republicans, and three House Democrats) who will be charged with drafting legislation to cut at least $1.2 trillion out of the deficit over the next 10 years. They have until November 23 to come up with a plan and then lawmakers can pass it, or reject it, without getting a chance to make changes.

Folks have been waiting with bated breath to find out who, exactly, is on this so-called super committee. And education advocates probably broke open the champagne when they heard that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was going to co-chair.

Murray, a former teacher, has been one of the most ardent supporters of K-12, early childhood education, and other programs that benefit kids, education lobbyist extraordinaire Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, told me.

"We are very comforted having [Sen.] Patty Murray on there," he said.

So who else is on?: It's a definite mix of folks from different backgrounds and perspectives. Murray's co-chair is Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, a staunch conservative. Other Senate members include: Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., John Kerry, D-Mass., John Kyl, R-Ariz, Rob Portman, R-Ohio (former head of the Office of Management and Budget, considered somewhat moderate), and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., the former president of the Club for Growth, which advocates for lower taxes.

Other House members include Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of the committee that oversees health policy, and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., the chairman of the committee that oversees tax policy. The House Democrats haven't been tapped yet. UPDATE: Reps. Xavier Becerra of California, James Clyburn of South Carolina, and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland will be the House Democrats on the committee.

Why should educators care about the committee's work? The committee has a broad, broad task ahead and very few rules on how to do it. So, theoretically, they could take a close look at the Department of Education's budget. But very, very few folks think they will get down to that level of detail. Instead, they're more likely to make recommendations on the Pell grant program (which provides money to help low-income kids go to college) and the student lending program.

But, if the committee can't reach agreement (or Congress rejects their plan) some draconian cuts kick in. In fact, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities is predicting an across-the-board cut of 9 percent, if the committee doesn't come up with a viable alternative. That's roughly a $4 billion slice out of the department's budget, Packer said.

To put that number in perspective, in the first year, Race to the Top was funded at about $4 billion. And think of how hard states fought for just a piece of that.

"There's a sledge hammer that's going to hit us," if the committee doesn't succeed, Packer said.

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