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Alarms Sounded As Federal Ed. Cuts Loom

A pair of new reports out today raise dire warnings about the impact on school districts and federal education programs from the sweeping, across-the-board spending cuts set to hit all federal agencies in early January if Congress doesn't act to head them off.

The reports, from the American Association of School Administrators and the National Education Association, take a close look at the threat posed by what's known as sequestration, the automatic budget cuts that loom as a result of the deal last August to raise the federal debt ceiling.

Almost every area of federal spending, from education to the military, would see cuts ranging from 7.8 percent (according to the Congressional Budget Office) to 8.4 percent (according to analysts from the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which works on fiscal policy ).

Pretty much no one in Congress wants to see the cuts happen, but so far, lawmakers have been unable to come up with a plan to avert them. And as the deadline draws closer, education advocates are working to draw attention to what they say are potentially harmful consequences for students, educators, and communities.

More than half of the districts surveyed for a report released today by the AASA—54.1 percent— said they built the potential federal cuts into their budgets for this coming school year.

Of those surveyed, 69.4 percent are betting they'll have to cut professional development,, and 58.1 percent say they'd expect to cut enrichment, after-school, and other programs. More than half—54.8 percent—say they anticipate laying off instructional staff. And 54.9 percent expect to boost class size. (The AASA surveyed 1,060 school administrators in 49 states and the District of Columbia in June.)

The vast majority of districts—90 percent—also say their states are in no position to help them absorb or offset the cuts.

But some state education agencies are beginning to take action, at least on the information front, or by helping the districts in their budget planning.

For instance, Texas recently released a memo telling districts the state education agency may hold back up to 10 percent of their funding for some federal programs, to avoid possible mid-year cuts in case sequestration goes into effect. And Vermont suggested its districts build in a 10 percent across-the-board cut to federal funding, in case the cuts go through. (Hat-tip to Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, for those examples).

So what would the cuts mean for particular federal programs? The National Education Association, a 3 million member union in Washington, released a separate report today estimating how many jobs would be lost if the sequestration goes through—and how much money programs in various states would lose.

NEA says education spending—including for the $8 billion Head Start pre-school program—would be cut by $4.5 billion to $4.8 billion. And the union says there could be job losses of 74,600 to 80,500. (Wonky budget aside: Those numbers are based on federal spending for this federal fiscal year, 2012, because the spending bills for fiscal year 2013—the year the cuts would actually kick in—haven't been completed yet.)

Based on the NEA's estimates:
• Title I grants for districts, currently funded at $14.5 billion could be cut by up to $1.2 billion;
• Special education grants, currently funded at $11.6 billion, could be cut by $972 million;
• Head Start funding, which is about $8 billion, could be cut by $669 million.

It's important to note that some programs, including Pell Grants to help low-income students attend college, are exempt from sequestration.

NEA also compiled a state-by-state breakdown, which you can check out here. The states that would likely feel the squeeze the most, according to the NEA? In alphabetical order: Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

Keep in mind though, that these are just estimates. Even Congress has a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to sequestration. In fact, U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced an amendment to recently considered legislation asking the Office of Management and Budget to provide more information about how sequestration would actually work in practice.

So what's happening on the advocacy front? Education groups are joining up with advocates for other domestic discretionary programs to fight the cuts. Putting out information is part of the strategy for ensuring that lawmakers act to spare education programs, said Marc Egan, a lobbyist for the NEA.

That's what the defense community has been doing, he said.

"The defense industry has been extremely effective at [communicating] what might happen if Congress doesn't replace the sequester," he said. And school districts are in a tough position, he said, because there have already been big cuts at the state and local level due to the recession. "We're already cut to the bone, it's having a huge impact in classrooms," he said.

Realistically, most advocates expect the final deal on sequestration probably won't get done until after the presidential election, when Congress returns for a lame-duck session. And, if Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, is elected president, he's hoping they'll come up with a short-term fix so that he can participate in a broader, more vigorous discussion about the nation's economic future if and when he takes office in January. (He said so in this Wall Street Journal blog post.)

What if President Obama wins a second term? Lawmakers may seek a longer term deal on taxes and spending—but the shape of it may depend a lot on the makeup of Congress after the 2012 election.

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