Today is the day that those automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that have been coming since August 2011 are finally set to kick in. And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been a chief spokesman for the administration on the impact of the cuts on domestic programs—and landed in some pretty hot water with fact checkers.
Earlier this week, the White House put out job loss estimates, including for K-12 schools, and Duncan backed them up on Sunday's political talk shows. However, it's really too early to know exactly how many layoffs, furloughs, or programmatic cuts will result from sequestration (which would represent the largest cut to federal K-12 aid in recent history). School districts—not to mention states, and the federal government—are still hammering out their spending plans for this year. Schools don't typically send out Reduction in Force (RIF) notices until March or April.
That means teachers won't lose their positions this school year, although some districts are beginning to contemplate layoffs for next year, as well as cuts to things like professional development, according to this report by the American Association of School Administrators. Another survey by the organization, released last year, showed that many school districts were trying to carefully plan for the cuts, to minimize the impact on students and staff.
Besides, state and local money makes up the vast majority (about 90 percent) of a district's budget, so school district officials could be watching their state legislatures just as closely (more closely?) than they are watching Congress when it comes to deciding just how many teaching positions they can fund next year.
Given all that, I asked Secretary Duncan earlier today, at an event at an elementary school in Takoma Park, Md., if he still stands by the estimates the White House put out earlier this week.
Here's what he told me:
"Obviously all these potential cuts are not coming at a time when states and districts are flush. We lost a couple hundred thousand teacher jobs over the past few years." And he said "the vast majority of [district] money goes to people. There simply aren't too many other places to go."
He added that districts have the option of furloughing teachers rather than laying them off, which he said would still be detrimental to kids. "If your money is going to people, people are going to get hurt. These are estimates, we'll see, this is the potential impact. I think again, you'll start to see over time now, these notices going out."
I asked him if he was worried that by putting estimates out there, rather than waiting for hard and fast numbers, he had undermined the administration's (and advocates') arguments that the sequester could be very damaging for schools.
"My job is to be clear and straight and transparent," Duncan said. "We've never said that this is what's going to happen. ...We've always said this is what might happen. And sadly, this is what might happen." (On CBS's Face the Nation Duncan said that there are "literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can't come back this fall." School district officials: Have you sent those notes? Or do you typically wait until March or April before announcing layoffs?)
More background on the cuts: The pain won't be felt evenly everywhere. Some states, like Connecticut, don't rely very much on federal funding for education, while others, like New Mexico, count much more on the feds. But overall, state budgets are largely rebounding from the recent recession, Michael Griffith, a state budget guru, told my colleague Andrew Ujifusa of State EdWatch fame.
The impact of sequestration appears to be equally murky when it comes to the $8 billion Head Start program, which helps low-income families cover the cost of preschool. The cuts will be far more immediate here, although it's unclear what impact that will have on children served.
Here's the administration's take:
"We have a situation where we're looking at the possibility of 70,000 young children losing their access to Head Start and Early Head Start, with teachers being laid off and teaching assistants being laid off," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at a press conference today.
But, as with K-12, it sounds like local implementation could be key to how Head Start programs absorb the cuts. Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS, told me this week that under the sequester, Head Start programs that don't operate in the summer could either end their current school year earlier than planned, or delay the start of the next school year to save money. 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. Some Head Start students may have no other way of getting to their programs. All of those steps would have a major impact on Head Start kids and families, of course.
The cuts may not be in place for long anyway. In fact, Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House education committee, is betting they'll be replaced with a broader budget agreement, possibly this year.