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Obama Talks Fiscal Cliff and Education

So now that all the big talk in Washington has shifted to the fiscal cliff, the question for school districts is whether education programs will see cuts in any final deal to head off sequestration, aka the automatic, across-the-board cuts set to hit almost every federal agency early next year. Democrats and Republicans will have to come up with a deal to avert those cuts, and head off a host of tax increases, in the next couple months.(Confused by the fiscal cliff? Check out this post.)

President Barack Obama offered some hopeful signs for worried school districts during Wednesday's news conference, his first since winning re-election, but still stopped short of saying he would veto any compromise that would cut K-12.

He said that he was "willing to look at additional work we can do on the discretionary spending side"—the category that includes education. But he also singled out K-12 and college aid as an important area for federal investment.

There are some tough things that have to be done, but there is a way of doing this that does not hurt middle-class families; that does not hurt our seniors; doesn't hurt families with disabled kids; allows us to continue to invest in those things that make us grow, like basic research and education, helping young people afford going to college.

Obama urged lawmakers to extend a series of tax cuts put in place under President George W. Bush for middle-class Americans. That would leave unsettled the question of whether to keep the cuts in place for high-earners—a big point of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats in figuring out how to solve the fiscal cliff puzzle.

Meanwhile, education advocates, who have been sounding alarm bells about the dangers of sequestration for over a year, kicked their lobbying efforts into super high gear this week.

Jill Wynns, the president of the California School Boards Association and a school board member of the San Francisco Unified School District, said it would be tough for districts to absorb the federal cuts on top of already steep state and local reductions.

"This is not abstract, this is [not] about saving money. It's disinvesting in our future," she said on a conference call for reporters about the impact of the cuts, sponsored by the National School Boards Association.

Most school districts wouldn't feel the impact of the cuts until the 2013-14 school year gets started next fall. Does that give districts enough time to prepare?

Not really, said school board members. "This is not a lot of lead time," Wynns said.

The American Association of School Administrators has been gathering information about the impact of sequestration on districts for months. In a survey released in July, AASA asked districts if they were starting to plan for the cuts. More than half said had built the cuts into their budget, although they were still very worried about the long-term impact of sequestration. Superintendents expected that they will have to cutback on professional development, reduce personnel, and boost class size. Read the survey here.

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