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Education Advocates to Congress: Stop the Sequestration Cuts

Education advocates are pushing Congress to head off a series of automatic, across-the-board cuts set to hit just about every federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Education, on March 1, unless lawmakers come up with some sort of plan to stop them. The Non-Defense Discretionary Coalition today sent a letter to every member of Congress asking them to, please, come up with another solution for deficit-reduction.

The group represents 3,200 organizations, including a number of K-12 education groups, some of which don't usually see eye-to-eye on policy, including Fair Test and the Education Trust. There also are hundreds of environmental, justice, health, and science organizations on the list.

Here's a snippet of what they have to say:

Continued cuts will have consequences for every American, threatening the health, safety, and competiveness of the United States. Americans may be left waiting longer for help after natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. They may be more susceptible to deadly infectious diseases, like the West Nile virus, Hantavirus, and meningitis. With fewer air traffic controllers, flights may be curtailed or safety compromised. Classroom size may increase as teachers are laid off. National parks will have fewer visitor hours or may close altogether. Roads and bridges will continue to crumble. Our communities will lack the necessary resources to protect our families, to prevent future crimes and to apprehend and prosecute violent criminals. Promising research will be curtailed, compromising our global position as a scientific leader.

The cuts, known inside the Beltway as sequestration, or "the sequester," were put in place back in August 2011 as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling, and would affect both domestic and military spending. They were supposed to be so bad that they would never happen, but so far, it doesn't seem like Brokedown Congress is anywhere close to coming up with a solution, although lawmakers already temporarily delayed the cuts once. President Barack Obama has called on lawmakers to come up with a similar, temporary package if they can't reach a broader deal by the deadline.

But now, most analysts are now betting the cuts will go through, at least temporarily, while Congress works to come up with a spending plan for fiscal year 2013, which started way back on Oct. 1 Lawmakers passed a measure extending funding for most federal programs until the end of March.

For the most part, the Pentagon, which would be cut be along with the domestic agencies, has been stealing all the headlines on how bad sequestration would be. U.S. Sen. Barbara Milkulksi, a Maryland Democrat and the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has set out to change that. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other Cabinet officials will be testifying before her panel this week, discussing the impact on their agencies.

Meanwhile, Duncan has already sent a memo to the staff at the Education Department about how the department plans to deal with the cuts, should they become a reality. He said that he and his staff would do their best to mitigate the impact. But, Duncan wrote in an email sent Feb. 6, "our ability to do so will be limited by the rigid nature of the cuts imposed by Congress. As a result, we are closely examining contracts, grants, and other forms of expenditures across the department to determine where we can reduce costs."

Duncan cautioned employees that furloughs may be necessary, but said he would give his staff at least 30 days notice and would work with employee unions to make sure any furloughs are "applied in a fair and appropriate manner."

So how would schools actually be affected? It's tough to say because it will depend largely on local implementation. However, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate panel that oversees education spending, has already put out a report detailing how the cuts would impact schools and education jobs.

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