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Arne Duncan's Latest on How Sequestration Will Squeeze Schools

U.S.Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has come under fire for the way he's described the impact of sequestration at the school-district level—particularly for his comment on CBS' Face the Nation, in which he said that "pink slips" were already going out and that 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs. (Job reductions are possible, but it will really depend on local implementation.) That estimate earned him a rebuke from key Republican senators, in a letter sent to Duncan last week.

Today, Duncan apologized for his choice of words, but said the cuts are still a serious problem.

"Language is really, really important, and I want to apologize for not being as clear as I should have been last week," Duncan said in a press conference accompanied by members of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools in Washington.

Instead of "pink slips" Duncan noted, he should have said "job eliminations" or "position eliminations." (In many cases, districts have simply frozen positions instead of laying off employees). And when he described the impact on "teachers" he should have instead said "educators," since in many cases those effected may be support staff, counselors, paraprofessionals, and others who aren't classroom teachers.

"Because I wasn't clear, the spotlight was put on me, and that's never my goal, my goal here is to have the spotlight be on children and families," said Duncan.

As it turns out, the districts that will be hurt first by the cuts—and in some cases, hardest—are those that receive money from the $1 billion Impact Aid program.

Impact Aid helps schools that are near Native American reservations or military bases cope with an influx of students who might not be on the rolls if it weren't for the federal government, along with districts that have a lot of federal land nearby. The program, as we've told you many times before, is in a unique situation compared with the rest of the U.S. Department of Education, in that it's not what's known as forward funded. That means the cuts would hit this school year. Other major programs, like Title I grants for disadvantaged students and for special education, wouldn't feel the squeeze until the 2013-14 school year.

Sequestration isn't the only spending uncertainty facing districts. Right now, the federal budget is operating on a giant extension measure that funds all programs at fiscal year 2013 levels and which expires on March 27. If Congress is able to pass a final, real-deal budget for the current fiscal year by the end of the month and turn off the cuts, the Impact Aid districts likely won't lose a dime. The superintendents are going to up to Capitol Hill this week to plead their case.

Still, even for Impact Aid districts, who in many cases are subject to a triple whammy (losing money for special education and disadvantaged kids, as well as Impact Aid dollars), the immediate situation for this school year is generally tough, though not dire. Next school year, however, could be very grim.

Impact Aid districts have seen the cuts coming for quite a while, and have done their best to mitigate the potential effect on students and staff. (More about what they were doing over the summer here.)

"The sky is not falling on these districts," said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools in Washington told me in an interview at the NAFIS federal relations conference in Washington. "We were able to kind of give them forewarning," he added, and superintendents planned accordingly.

For instance, Susan Smit, the superintendent in Wagner, S.D., said she put off purchasing new language arts textbooks, and didn't fill some teaching positions. Another superintendent, Ron Walker of Geary County Schools in Kansas, put off needed building repairs, and reduced some contractual positions for paraprofessionals working with students in special education.

But next year might be a lot tougher. Deborah Jackson-Dennison, the superintendent of the Window Rock School District in Arizona, is already planning to lay off staff members, and maybe even have to close three of her seven schools, resulting in longer commutes for students.

Another reason that districts have largely been able to weather the sequestration storm? The Obama administration has given the Impact Aid program money beyond what they would normally have gotten in the six-month extension measure.

The Impact Aid Program was supposed to get roughly $500 million under the current stopgap budget for fiscal 2013. But the administration gave the program extra funding, roughly $270 million, financing Impact Aid program until roughly the beginning of April, Forkenbrock said. That's been a big help, he said.

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