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Obama to Congress: Halt Automatic Cuts to Federal Education Spending

President Barack Obama is calling on Congress to temporarily delay a series of automatic, across-the-board cuts set to hit federal K-12 education spending—as well as defense, criminal justice, and a whole host of other programs—on March 1.

Obama is putting forward a package of tax changes and spending cuts intended to buy some time so that lawmakers can come up with a broader agreement on spending. But he wasn't specific in a short speech Tuesday about just how long he was seeking to postpone the cuts—published reports say a few months—or exactly how he would pay for the delay.

The looming automatic budget cuts, known in Inside-the-Beltway-Speak as the "sequester," were intended as a way to prod Congress and the administration to come up with a long-term plan to reduce the federal deficit. Obama has long singled out the education cuts as particularly onerous, and Tuesday's speech was no exception:

"There is no reason that the jobs of thousands of Americans who work in national security or education or clean energy, not to mention the growth of the entire economy, should be put in jeopardy just because folks in Washington couldn't come together to eliminate a few special interest tax loopholes or government programs that we agree need some reform," the president said.

Quick background: The threat of automatic cuts was first put in place as part of an agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling back in August of 2011. They were never actually supposed to go through; in fact, in one of his campaign debates with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Obama said that it wouldn't happen. Many Republicans agreed—in fact, almost a year ago, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education Committee, told state chiefs that sequestration was "set up to be so bad that it would never happen."

Lawmakers and the administration have already pushed back the cuts once, as part of a deal to resolve the so-called fiscal cliff that was approved very early this year. Now it looks like Obama is hoping for another stay of execution.

What would sequestration mean for schools? Educators—from teachers and superintendents, to local and state school board members and state education chiefs—have been warning that the cuts could lead to programmatic cutbacks and even layoffs. And U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the subcommittee that deals with K-12 spending, put out a report last summer detailing what the education cuts could mean when it comes to jobs. It's important to note, however, that the cuts wouldn't take effect for most K-12 programs, including Title I grants to districts and special education, until next school year, giving districts and states time to prepare.

There's another important education spending deadline coming up next month: March 27, when a bill that is currently funding much of the federal government—including the U.S. Department of Education—expires. Lawmakers will have to figure out a way to fund education programs for the remainder of fiscal year 2013, which actually started back on Oct. 1. In fact, the very smart folks over at the New America Foundation's Federal Education Budget Project see that deadline as much more important for education than the one for sequestration.

Amid all this fiscal uncertainty, the president's budget for fiscal year 2014—which is usually released in early February—appears to be delayed. Bottom line: If you're a school district official hoping for clarity on your federal funding going forward, good luck!

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