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What Would Big, Giant Proposed Cuts Mean for Your K-12 Program?

So if Congress doesn't stop the big, giant across the board cuts to set to hit (almost) every education program under the sun next January, what would that mean for you?

The Committee for Education Funding, an uber-lobbying coalition, has taken a stab at answering that question.

This week, CEF put out a series of very helpful charts estimating what would happen if the planned cuts, which were put into law under a deal to raise the debt ceiling last August, go through. The cuts, which could be as high as 9.1 percent, are known inside-the-beltway as "sequestration" (Chris Koch, the state chief in Illinois, joked a while back that the name came from combining "sasquatch" and "castration", which is probably about as funny as education-budget-speak ever gets.)

Overall, sequestration would be the biggest cut to education in history, estimates Joel Packer, CEF's executive director. So what's the damage, specifically?

Here are some projections (which come with a big, giant caveat, explained below):

•Title I grants for disadvantaged kids would go from $14.5 billion to $13.19 billion.

•Teacher quality state grants would go from $2.46 billion to $2.24 billion

•Special education state grants would go from $11.57 billion to $10.52 billion (For more on sequestration and special education, check out this great website.)

• Head Start would go from nearly $8 billion to $7.2 billion.

• Race to the Top would from $549 million to $499 million.

More program-by-program info here.

CEF's projections come from taking that 9.1 percent cut (estimated by the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities) to the current budget for each program. The cuts are scheduled, by law, to go through, unless a broken-down Congress takes some sort of action to stop them.

Big, giant caveat. Here's where things get dizzying for everyone but the hardest of hard-core budget geeks: According to the law Congress passed that put sequestration in place, the real cuts are going to be based on spending bills for fiscal year 2013. And that legislation hasn't even been drafted yet.

CEF is assuming that lawmakers will follow their typical pattern of proposing about the same level of funding for most education programs as they did the year before, Packer told me. The group used the current year's budget in making their projections.

But if there are radical changes (say, if Congress pumps way more money into a program or eliminates it entirely), the estimates will change, he said.

Jason Delisle, the director of the New American Foundation's education budget project, said folks should be careful in interpreting CEFs materials. They're "pretending to know what they can't know," said Delisle, who worked as an aide for former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a noted deficit hawk. (Read more about his Delisle's take on sequestration in this great blog post.)

Packer says he has a point about the estimates, but he argues that, as an advocate, there's a good reason to put out projections, with the caveat that they could change. For one thing, he doesn't expect big shifts in funding in the still-to-be-written budget bills.

"We think these are realistic projections of what the cuts could be," Packer told me. And he says educators and their advocates need to be armed with real numbers if they're going to make the case that sequestration would be devastating for schools. "School board members, school administrators, and state officials need to have some sense of what we're facing. Hopefully it will motivate people to contact their members of Congress.... We're raising the noise level about what these cuts could mean and why they're unacceptable."

For their part, some members of Congress have tried to assure education officials that the cuts, which would also effect military spending, are too terrible to happen. Lawmakers have told folks to expect a deal sometime after the presidential election.

But Packer isn't so sure. "Congress has shown itself to be incapable of coming up with any kind of big bipartisan budget deal," he said.

There's been lots of hand-wringing about what the cuts would mean for defense. But education advocates have been pressing the administration (and members of Congress) to be very explicit and vocal about what possible cuts would mean for schools, too. (They've had some success. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talked about it in testifying before Congress earlier this month.)

Why? Advocates have to be betting that the stronger-on-the-record stance lawmakers and President Obama take now against cuts to education, the tougher it would be for them to allow big reductions to K-12 to go through in a final deal, if it ever happens, said Delisle.

"If they can get the administration on the record saying that we'll do whatever we can to protect [schools] ... that's probably their best shot at preventing major cuts," he said.

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