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Harkin Hopes to Help Ease Pain of Automatic Cuts on Schools

UPDATED

Congress has a couple chances to reverse those automatic, across-the-board education cuts, known as sequestration, and the first would be in the current-year budget, which must be finalized by March 27 to avoid a government shutdown.

So far it's not looking good for folks who'd like to see the cuts reversed, although U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is hoping to make the cuts a little easier to cope with. UPDATE: Sen. Harkin's amendment failed to meet the 60 vote threshold required, and did not pass.

To recap: The U.S. House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution for fiscal year 2013, the current fiscal year earlier this month. The measure is essentially a giant extension bill funding all federal programs at last year's levels—minus the 5 percent across-the-board reduction. The Obama administration expressed its unhappiness with the cuts—but, importantly, didn't say hey, Congress, if you leave the cuts in place, we will veto your bill. And last night, the Senate Appropriations Committee put out legislation that would also largely extend funding at fiscal year 2012 levels (that's last fiscal year) with the cuts going through as planned. One change: A teeny tiny $33.5 million boost for the $8 billion Head Start program, which would not fully off-set the 5 percent cut, but it would help a bit.

What does all that mean? Sequestration isn't likely to be stopped for now, although Congress will have yet another chance when it's time to raise the debt ceiling in late May.

But, before that happens, the cuts might be eased just a little bit. Harkin, who oversees the panel that deals with K-12 funding, is planning to introduce an amendment to the Senate's year-long spending bill that would include slight increases for the key education programs that school districts depend on the most.

The measure would boost the $15 billion Title I program by $107 million, according to folks familiar with the legislation. It would increase special education funding by $125 million, from $11.6 billion. And it would boost child care programs by $107 million, and TRIO (college prep programs) by $14 million. There are also increases for a couple of health programs.

Those increases aren't nearly enough to fully offset the sequester, which would mean a $725 million cut to Title I overall, and a $580 million to special education state grants. But they would ease the pain a little bit for school districts, especially those that have a lot of disadvantaged students and students in special education. And, if Harkin's amendment passes, it would send a signal that K-12 formula programs are a priority for Congress.

To make up for the small increases, the measure includes a pretty small, additional across-the-board cut to other health, human services, and education programs—a little more than a quarter of a percent, according to advocates.

Of course, some folks are questioning whether sequestration will even be a big deal for schools, which depend far more on state and local funding than they do on the feds. Others argue that it could make a big difference for schools that have lots of poor kids and kids in special education. More here.

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