School districts and states are bracing for the possibility of the biggest reduction in federal education aid in recent history, as Congress struggles to reach an agreement to head off across-the-board cuts and tax increases that make up the so-called fiscal cliff.
With much of the focus on the tax policies at issue in the fiscal-cliff negotiations, it remained unclear until late yesterday whether any final deal—hammered out in the waning hours of 2012 by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader, and Vice President Joe Biden—would include a stop to the automatic cuts set to hit just about every federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Education, on Jan. 2.
UPDATE: Early Tuesday morning, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan New Year's day vote, the U.S. Senate approved a bill that would avert much of the fiscal cliff. The deal would put a temporary stop to the trigger cuts, delaying them for two months, according to published reports. The measure, which must still be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, would set up yet another round of high-stakes budget wrangling later this winter.
The cuts—whether and how to head them off—remained a sticking point as lawmakers finalized negotiations on Monday. And if the U.S. House of Representatives is unable to approve the Senate legislation Jan. 2, they could go through as planned, at least temporarily.
President Barack Obama told the nation early Monday afternoon that negotiators were close to a deal, but he did not offer any details on whether the cuts would be addressed in a developing agreement to avert the fiscal cliff. Still, he spoke out against trimming education programs, singling out the Head Start preschool program for low-income children (administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) as one program that faced an immediate cut.
And the president made it clear that he didn't ultimately want to see cuts to school funding, saying that the federal government must make "investments in things that help our economy grow," such as education.
Programs in the Education Department, including Title I grants for districts, are slated to be cut by 8.2 percent if the automatic cuts take effect. Because of the way that key programs like Title I grants and special education aid flow, most school districts would not feel the full sting of the cuts until the beginning of next school year. But other programs, including Head Start, would be cut much sooner. (More on the cuts here.)
The spending cuts would affect much more than education. They are also slated to hit the military, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, medical research, the Environmental Protection Agency—and a whole host of other agencies and programs.
As the clock was ticking down, education advocates were spending their New Year's Eve day trying to persuade lawmakers to avert the cuts. The Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying organization, sent a letter to every House and Senate office last week, asking lawmakers to reverse—or at least delay—the cuts.
Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the 3 million-member National Education Association, said in an interview before the details of any deal were known that the union was "growing increasingly worried that Congress' inaction is going to be irreversibly damaging" to students around the country.
And Kusler cautioned that another possible fight over raising the debt ceiling could take place a couple months from now. That's a scary thought for education advocates, given that the impending "sequestration" cuts were put in place as part of the most recent deal to raise the debt ceiling, agreed to in August of 2011.
"We don't want to delay this fight for later on," Kusler told me. Education programs "could be even more of a target" in future negotiations, she said.
While most school districts still have some time to plan, schools that receive impact-aid money would feel the cuts much earlier—their next federal payment is scheduled for April, said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.
And if Congress remains unable to reach a deal to head off the cuts, the lawmakers' inaction could hamper districts and states as they begin to plan their upcoming budgets early in 2013. States and districts are only beginning to recover from the recent recession, and the looming federal cuts, on top of state and local belt-tightening, would be painful, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators.
"School districts have already had to cut personnel and programs," she said.
It's important to note that almost no one wanted to see the sequestration cuts happen. They were put in place as part of the 2011 debt-ceiling deal to force lawmakers to come up with an agreement to solve the federal government's budget problems.
The administration, lawmakers, and education officials have been worrying about the possibility of sequestration for over a year. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told lawmakers on the Senate Appropriation subcommittee that oversees education spending back in July that the cuts would be a major problem.
"The sequestration will put at risk all that we've accomplished in education and weaken programs that help children, serve families, send young people and adults to college, and make the middle-class American dream possible," he said.
UPDATE: Duncan told department employees in a Dec. 20 memo that he does not anticipate immediate employee furloughs if the cuts become a reality. He said that the department may have to consider such steps if the sequester cuts hit and aren't addressed for an extended period. But, he added, the department would "carefully examine other options to reduce costs within the agency before taking such action, taking into consideration our obligation to execute our core mission."
And Chris Koch, the state schools chief in Illinois, joked at the Council of Chief State School Officers' legislative conference last March that the prospect of "sequestration" was so bad that the word could be best explained as a cross between "sasquatch" and "castration."