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School Districts Fear Slashed Budgets After Supercommittee Fails

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Education advocates and local school officials are nervously eyeing a series of draconian cuts set to hit just about every federal program in 2013—including Title I, special education, and money for teacher quality—now that a bipartisan panel tasked with making recommendations for trimming the nation's deficit has failed to reach agreement.

Quick recap: Over the summer, as part of an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, lawmakers decided to set up a bipartisan "supercommittee" which would include twelve members of the House and Senate, half Democrats and half Republicans. The panel was supposed to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in savings over 10 years. But lawmakers failed to reach agreement.

Now, a process known as sequestration, is set to kick in, beginning in January of 2013. It would mean an across-the-board cut of about 7.8 percent to most government programs, including many for education, advocates estimate.

That's on top of some very serious cuts already in place at the state and local level, particularly now that vast majority of the funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Education Jobs Fund is gone.

The possibilty of signficantly slashed federal aid is worrisome for Paul Durand, the superintendent of the 1,600-student Rockford County school district in Minnesota.

The proposed federal cuts "would come on the backs of issues we've had in our state. ... School districts in Minnesota are having to borrow money to make sure we can pay our bills." Further cuts to education at the federal level would be "very short-sighted and poor policy," he said.

The 7.8 percent cut would mean about a $3.5 billion decrease to the U.S. Department of Education's budget. To put that number in perspective, it's more than states get right now for Improving Teacher Quality State Grants (funded at $2.5 billion), but a little less than the competitive grant total for Race to the Top under the stimulus ($4 billion).

The National Education Association is estimating that sequestration would result in the loss of more than 24,000 jobs in elementary and secondary education.

"This is a huge deal," said Mary Kusler, the manager of federal advocacy for the union. These are "dramatic cuts that will be felt by every student and every school district at a time when state budget [cuts] are raising the importance of the limited federal dollars that are flowing."

Of course, Congress has a whole year before those major cuts are triggered. And lawmakers may well cook up a plan that would scrap the programmatic spending cuts, which are set to go into effect not just for domestic programs, but for defense, too.

Lawmakers may not come up with a plan to stop "sequestration" until after the 2012 election, said Joel Packer, a veteran education lobbyist who is now the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding.

"I think we are in for year-long fight about sequestration and everything else budget related," Packer said. "My personal guess is that nothing happens until after the election."

That may well make the cuts to domestic programs, including K-12 education, a centerpiece of the presidential campaign.

But that would leave school districts in the dark for a while about their federal funding, which can complicate local decisions, Durand said.

"The not-knowing what's happening is bad because you can't plan and you need to be able to plan," he said. "All of these things have real impact on children."

And already, district advocates are worried lawmakers may move to spare defense, but not education.

"If we get [the cuts], that is what would be very damaging for schools," said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy, for the American Association of School Administrators. But the worst case scenario, she said, would be if other programs, such as defense were exempted from the cuts, and education was not. That would mean the cuts to education would be even deeper and more damaging than anticipated, Ellerson said.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is worried, too.

We must reduce America's debt. But we must do so in a thoughtful and deliberate way that protects national priorities like education at such a critical time. Because the supercommittee failed to live up to its responsibility, education programs that affect young Americans across the country now face across-the-board cuts.

And Republicans are also upset about the failure of the committee to reach agreement. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said that he believed the money would eventually be cut but worried that it would be "done the wrong way"—he'd rather see major changes to entitlement programs, such as Medicare.

Photo: President Barack Obama walks away from the podium after making a statement at the White House on Nov. 21 after the congressional debt supercommittee failed to reach an agreement on debt reduction. (Evan Vucci/AP)

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