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White House Outlines Impact of Looming Sequestration Cuts

All summer, folks in Washington have been wondering just how that series of planned, across-the-board budget cuts, known by the wonky, catchy name of "sequestration," would impact education programs. And, finally, the Office of Management of Budget, the White House's green-eyeshade arm, has released a list detailing just what the cuts would be and which programs they would effect.

(Here's the report. The U.S. Department of Education budget information is on pages 60 through 64. Congress passed legislation earlier this year asking for this information.)

The bad news: The White House is estimating that almost every program in the U.S. Department of Education would be cut by 8.2 percent. That's actually a bit higher than some folks had thought. U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who heads up the panel that oversees education spending, put out a report earlier this year detailing projected program-by-program, state-by-state cuts. But his estimates were based on a 7.8 across-the-board cut to a broad swath of federal programs, the number the Congressional Budget Office came up with. That was the best data available at the time, but it sounds like the actual cuts, if they happen, will be a little steeper, the White House estimates.

Based on the White House estimates, that means programs aimed at equity, including those for disadvantaged kids, funded at $15.75 billion would be cut by almost $1.3 billion. And special education programs, funded at $12.64 billion, would be cut by about $1.03 billion. Those estimates are based on expected funding levels for the federal fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.

Some background: What exactly is sequestration and where did all these cuts come from anyway? The short answer is that, last year Congress was having a tough time reaching an agreement to raise the nation's debt ceiling. Lawmakers decided they needed to cut $1.2 trillion out of the federal budget over the next decade. They were hoping to work together on some sort of big, bipartisan agreement to put the nation's fiscal house in order.

To make sure they stuck to their guns, lawmakers put in place a series of across-the-board cuts that are set to hit just about every federal program, including defense (which Republicans care a lot about) and domestic programs (typically favored by Democrats). Almost no one really wants the cuts to happen, but lawmakers can't seem to get their act together and come up with a compromise on how to head them off. If an agreement can't be reached, the cuts would take effect on Jan. 2.

In its report, the administration urged Brokedown Congress to act sooner rather than later to head off the cuts, in part because of the potential harm to K-12.

Here's a snippet:

"Sequestration would undermine investments vital to economic growth, threaten the safety and security of the American people, and cause severe harm to programs that benefit the middle-class, seniors, and children. Education grants to states and local school districts supporting smaller classes, after-school programs, and children with disabilities would suffer."

The silver lining, if there is one: Even though the cuts are slated to hit on Jan. 2, most of the large programs important to school districts, including special education and Title I grants to districts, wouldn't feel a squeeze right away. The cuts wouldn't hit school districts until the 2013-14 school year, which doesn't start until next fall. That gives schools more time to plan. Still, no cut is ever a great thing, especially since some states and districts are still recovering from the recession.

The program that could get hit right away? Impact aid, which helps districts with a lot of federal land nearby (i.e. military bases, Native American reservations) make up for lost tax revenue. Way more background on sequestration generally here.

Unanswered questions: Although the OMB report gives school districts a good idea of just which programs would be cut and by how much, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. For instance, how would the planned cuts affect maintenance of effort provisions, which require a states and districts to keep their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal funds?

What comes next: Almost everyone in Washington seems to agree that sequestration is a big, scary thing, but no one is talking with any seriousness yet about how to head it off. That will come after the November election, when Congress returns for a "lame-duck" session. Until then, expect a lot of political grandstanding, from just about everyone.

Want the latest news on K-12 policy and politics? Follow @politicsk12 on Twitter.

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