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Ed. Dept.: Most Automatic Cuts Wouldn't Affect Coming School Year

Districts and state officials who have lost sleep worrying that key federal education progams might be cut smack in the middle of the coming school year can calm down, at least according to a letter the U.S. Department of Education sent out to chief state school officers late Friday.

Title I grants to districts, special education state grants, career and technical education, and Title II grants for teacher quality wouldn't be cut in the middle of the school year even if the automatic federal spending cuts triggered by last year's deficit-reduction deal take place, Anthony Miller, the deputy secretary of education at the department, wrote.

"There is no reason to believe that a sequestration would affect funding for the 2012-13 school year," he wrote.

Some background: If Congress doesn't get its act together, an across-the-board cut to almost all domestic programs ("sequestration" in Inside-the-Beltway speak) is set to take place on Jan. 2. Lots of state and district officials were very concerned that this could spell cuts to big federal programs—including Title I grants for districts and special education—halfway through the next school year. More on advocates' angst over the cuts here.

Why the worry? Most federal education money doesn't go out to districts and states until July 1 of next year, so a January cut wouldn't seem to have an immediate impact on big education programs. But some major programs, including Title I grants to districts, special education state grants, money for career and technical education, and Title II grants for teachers are paid for under a wacky and technical congressional mechanism called "forward funding." Some advocates and school districts were worried that this could land them on the "cut immediately list."

Now that the department has issued this guidance, that may only be true for one program—Impact Aid, which helps districts with a lot of federal land (such as those near military bases) make up for lost tax revenue, according to the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington.

Advocates had been pressing the administration for details on how all this would shake out, and getting no clear response.

In fact, more than half the 1,060 school administrators surveyed by the American Association of School Administrators earlier this month built the cuts into their budgets. And some state chiefs were trying to get their districts to plan for a big cut in the middle of the year. Texas, for example, was planning to withhold up to 10 percent of districts' federal funds in preparation, according to this memo.

So does this mean that education advocates who had been planning to spend the summer fighting the trigger cuts can quit organizing rallies and signing onto coalition letters, and go sip margaritas on the beach?

Not so much, says Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, and all-around smarty pants when it comes to the federal education budget.

If Congress can't figure out a solution, the cuts will still happen, Packer said. They just won't take effect until the 2013-14 school year. Of course, the extra time gives school districts and states a much bigger planning window, he said. Still, cuts of roughly 8 percent while districts are still recovering from the recession isn't anything to sneeze at.

Advocates will get a chance to learn more about the trigger cuts and their effect on education at a Senate hearing this Wednesday, chaired by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the panels that deal with K-12 funding and policy. The hearing will star U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, plus June Atkinson, the state chief in North Carolina, and Billy Walker, the superintendent of Randolph Field Independent School District in University City, Texas.

Of course, the presidential—and congressional elections—are going to be big determining factors in just how domestic spending (including education) is affected in any final deal, which most folks expect will get hammered out during the "lame-duck" session of Congress after the election.

For now, President Barack Obama has put out a budget blueprint that would spare education programs in part by raising taxes (or not extending tax cuts put in place under President George W. Bush) on folks making over $250,000 a year.

Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, doesn't support that plan. He hasn't been too specific about exactly what he'd cut and how education would fare. But, if he wins, he has said he'd like Congress to come up with a short-term solution in the lame-duck, so that he can lead negotiations on a sweeping, longer term deal once he takes office.

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