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Arne Duncan: Fewer Layoffs Than Expected, But Sequestration Still 'Heartbreaking'

Back in February, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went on CBS' "Face the Nation" and warned that school districts could be forced to cut 40,000 teacher jobs, thanks to a series of across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

At the time, Duncan got his head handed to him by the national media, including the White House press corps. Reporters pointed out that there were no massive layoffs in the offing—and the department explained that school districts typically don't begin their budgets for the next school year until the spring. The cuts, which were slated to hit at the start of the next school year, would likely be bad for districts, the administration argued, but February was too early to know the full impact on K-12 education.

Well, now it is nearly August and students around the country are starting their back-to-school shopping. Most school districts have finished their budgets for the 2013-14 school year—and there still aren't many stories of massive layoffs or even major programmatic cuts due to the sequestration.

A major exception: The 1,200 districts that rely on Impact Aid, which helps districts make up for tax revenue lost thanks to a federal presence, such as a military base or Native American reservation, as well as the tiny fraction of schools that are run by the Pentagon, and therefore rely heavily on federal funding. Head Start programs, which are funded through the Department of Health and Human Services, also, have had to make tough choices.

But many K-12 schools appear to have weathered the cuts. The reason? In part, state budgets are actually in pretty good shape this year. More here.

So, now that Congress is set to revisit sequestration in the fights over raising the debt ceiling and the fiscal year 2014 spending bills, will Duncan's initial predictions come back to haunt him?

He doesn't think so, he told me in an interview yesterday.

"We are going to continue to be extraordinarily vocal," he said. "Reversing the sequester is extraordinarily high on my priority list. ... It's heartbreaking to me that somehow politicians here in Washington think those kinds of cuts are okay."

And he added that even though the cuts didn't lead to massive layoffs in most places, districts and students still felt the impact.

"There have been critical investments that school districts would have preferred to make and they weren't able to make them," Duncan said, pointing to areas like upgrading technology or purchasing new textbooks. "We shouldn't feel good about that. The fact that states have stepped up is fantastic. The fact there's been less layoffs is good." But he noted cuts in areas like Head Start and added, "The fact that those investments aren't being made, that's not something we should feel proud of."

And he thinks the impact will only get worse if the cuts remain in place for decades (as they are slated to be, until Brokedown Congress comes up with some sort of long-term budget agreement).

"It's a noose around your neck that just gets a little tighter and a little tighter," he said.

But U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees education policy, isn't convinced. He thinks the administration's predictions on sequestration were way overblown. Rokita helped champion a bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would seek to lock the sequestration cuts in place.

"Given what the president and the secretary and the entire administration said [about the cuts], I'm surprised any teacher's car started the morning after sequestration," Rokita said in a recent interview. "The effect of the sequester was small in the education world. ... I'm not surprised that states and localities were able to weather this. It wasn't nearly as drastic as the administration lead us to believe."

Could school districts handle the cuts for a whole decade? From what he's seen in his home state, Rokita thinks they could, particularly if the House Republicans' ESEA legislation, which gives districts way more flexibility over how they spend their money, becomes a reality.

"Local governments actually know best" when it comes to spending their K-12 dollars, he said.

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