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Sequestration and Education: 12 Frequently Asked Questions

Now that sequestration, that looming, scary, Inside-the-Beltway possibility, is finally upon us, what does that mean for states and school districts? Here's a rundown:

1) What exactly is sequestration? Sequestration is a series of across-the-board cuts to a broad range of federal programs, including those in the U.S. Department of Education, set to hit the government on Friday, March 1, unless Congress and the Obama administration make a last-ditch effort to stop them. Programs in the U.S. Department of Education would be cut by about 5.3 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office. The cuts aren't just for this year, either. They're aimed at chopping $1.2 trillion out of the federal deficit over the next decade. So, if nothing happens, they're the new normal.

2) Where did these cuts come from? The threat of cuts was put in place as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling back in August of 2011. The cuts would affect both military spending, typically favored by Republicans, and domestic programs, typically favored by Democrats. The cuts were supposed to be so dire and distasteful to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that Congress and the administration would be forced to work together on some sort of long-term deficit reduction deal to avert them. But that hasn't happened, and now it looks like the cuts will become a reality, at least for a while. Congress, however, did delay the cuts once, as part of a deal to avert the fiscal cliff at the turn of the year.

3) When would school districts be affected? Most school districts wouldn't get squeezed right away because key formula-funding programs—including Title I grants for districts, and special education—are what's called "forward-funded." That means that districts already have money in hand through June. Schools wouldn't feel the pinch until the start of the 2013-14 school year. Still, many districts are already in the process of crafting their budgets for the coming school year, and they'd like to know what their funding will look like. The looming cuts make planning tough.

4) Would any school districts be affected right away? Some districts would get hit fairly soon, some of them substantially. Among the hardest hit would be those in the Impact Aid program, which services some 1,200 districts nationwide. Most impact-aid districts have a lot of Native American students, students whose parents work on military bases, or have federal land near the district. Their next federal payment, likely due out in April, would likely be smaller. But that's unlikely to translate into widespread layoffs, according to John Forkenbrock, the president of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. Districts have known about the cuts for a long time and have prepared, he said, by doing things like delaying technology purchases. The big problem for impact-aid districts may come next year.

5) What about all those numbers the Obama administration is throwing out when it comes to job losses? It's true that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs if the cuts go through. That number is pretty scary—the Obama administration is clearly trying to get the public riled up against the cuts. But it's tough to say how accurate the administration's estimates are at this point.

6) So what will the cuts actually mean in districts? School districts spend the majority of their funding on personnel, so federal cuts could very well translate into layoffs. But a lot will depend on how states and districts decide to implement the cuts. The American Association of School Administrators conducted a survey on sequestration back in July. Superintendents told the organization they were anticipating reducing professional development, cutting programs, and laying off some staff. The bottom line? Schools had time to prepare, but in many cases the cuts would come on top of state and local reductions. We just don't have hard and fast figures on potential job losses yet.

7) Are any U.S. Department of Education programs exempt from the cuts? Yes. Student loans and Pell Grants, which help needy students cover the cost of post-secondary education, are exempt. Some campus based aid, such as Work Study grants, are not.

8) What about early-childhood education programs? The Head Start program could face a cut right away, but it's unclear just how individual grantees would be affected. Even though the White House has repeatedly cited Head Start as a program that could get hit hard, the folks at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Management Budget haven't said just how they would implement the cuts. UPDATE: Kenneth Wolfe emailed to say that, if sequestration happens, Head Start programs that do not offer summer services would either end their current school year earlier than planned, or delay the start of the next school year. Year round programs would likely decide not to fill openings after children age out., he added. And grantees could also cut transportation services to find savings, he said.

9) Are any other federal programs for children safe from the sequester? Many are. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families would not get cut, and neither would most school nutrition programs and child health programs.

10) What about U.S. Department of Education employees? Will they be furloughed? Maybe. The education secretary says it's a possibility. Check out this blog post, which includes a memo from Duncan to his staff.

11) What about maintenance of effort and other technical issues, such as the state school improvement set-aside? Great question. Advocates have been asking about this literally for months, but the administration has yet to give them a good answer.

12) What happens now? Another great question. Congressional leaders haven't put forth a serious, bipartisan bill that would actually avert sequestration, so the cuts are likely to go through, at least temporarily. Congress still has another looming fiscal deadline: March 27. That's when a temporary measure funding most of the federal government expires. Lawmakers may figure out a way to deal with sequestration then. That deadline may be even more meaningful to districts, according to Jason Delisle at the New America Foundation, since the final budget is where we'll find overall numbers for key programs

Long time Politics K-12 readers probably knew the answers to a lot of these questions already. (Take a look at this previous blog post, and compare and contrast!) We've also written about advocates efforts to draw attention the cuts, and the congressional response.

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