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Federal Cuts Force Impact-Aid Districts to Cut Staff, Close Schools

It's been almost five months since Congress slashed education spending through across-the-board cuts known as "sequestration," which were intended to force a still completely elusive, long-term bipartisan budget deficit-reduction deal.

The school districts that became the poster children for these cuts? The ones that get money from the $1.2 billion Impact Aid program, which helps districts that have a big federal presence (such as a military base or an American Indian reservation nearby) make up for lost tax revenue. About 1,200 districts receive those funds, and a small handful rely on them heavily.

Why were they the poster kids? Because unlike other key K-12 formula programs, Impact Aid isn't "forward funded," which means the sequestration cuts hit right away. (Most schools won't feel sequestration's pinch until the start of the coming school year, but it began to nip at Impact Aid districts last spring.) Plus, Impact Aid districts also tend to serve a lot of children in poverty, so they are more reliant on Title I money than other school districts.

How important are Impact Aid districts to the administration's argument that sequestration would be very bad news for schools for schools? Back in March, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a big press conference with a bunch of districts that belong to the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

So now districts have had some time to implement the cuts, how bad were they? NAFIS surveyed 45 school districts (42 of which were American Indian land districts) to find out. And here's what those districts saw, for the 2013-14 school year:

• Thirty-one school districts cut positions, either through layoffs or attrition, and one district is using online learning to keep the student-teacher ratios from soaring out of control. Eleven districts said the cuts would be minimal in 2013-14, but only because they're tapping reserve funds.

• A popular strategy: delaying purchases of technology, classroom materials, etc. Eighteen districts are doing that.

• Ten districts are reducing bus fleets or transportation routes.

• Eight districts are cutting back on professional development, and eight are slashing summer and after-school programs.

• Two districts had to close or consolidate programs. Another dozen districts see school closures on the horizon, especially in North and South Dakota. But 11 districts didn't make cuts next school year—instead they are using reserve funds to weather the storm and hoping Congress does something to reverse the cuts.

Districts also think that if sequestration stays in place for 10 years (that's what's scheduled to happen, for now) the cuts will be far more dramatic. For instance, 19 districts said that staff reductions will be likely down the road, 13 said they might have to cut core services for students, and one district is even mulling charging fees for transportation and extra-curricular activities.

Expect these Impact Aid stories to fuel education advocates as they gear up for the next fight to halt the sequestration cuts, which will come when Congress mulls raising the debt ceiling later this year.

Download the full survey on NAFIS' website here.

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