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How Did Sequestration Impact K-12 Schools?

As Congress shifts into budget season, education advocates are getting ready to renew their push to fight the across-the-board cuts to federal K-12 programs, better known inside the Beltway as "sequestration." But to make their case, education organizations will likely have to hand lawmakers examples of how the cuts are actually hurting school districts.

That may be easier said than done.

The sequestration cuts—which were put in place in 2011 to force a long-term budget agreement—are hitting most school districts at the start of this coming school year. While some Head Start early-childhood programs have had to make painful choices, sequestration's impact on K-12 education is very uneven around the country. And, the fallout from the cuts—which trimmed roughly 5 percent from federal K-12 funding overall—is often hard to illustrate or quantify, even for seasoned number-crunchers.

"I thought by now we'd start to hear feedback from school districts and states," said Michael Griffith, a school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States. Griffith, who travels around the country talking to state and district officials about fiscal issues, hasn't heard nearly as much about sequestration this summer as he thought he would. "At no point did [state and district officials] ever bring up the issue. If I brought up the issue, I got met with a shrug, basically. It was surprising to me." Griffith said.

One possible reason for the lack of anxiety: States are generally much more fiscally fit than they were in past years, Griffith says. "People tend to look at the bottom line for all education spending and most states had a decent budget year. ... They increased education spending and that might cover up the sequestration cuts."

For instance, sequestration doesn't appear to have lead to massive layoffs or huge programmatic reductions in most Virginia districts, Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the state's department of education said. That might be, in part, because education spending from the state level is up, from $5.17 billion last school year to $5.34 billion this school year.

Plus, Pyle said, the state gave districts plenty of notice that the cuts were coming —alerting them to the possibility of sequestration as early as last summer. That gave districts plenty of time to figure out how they would implement the cuts without much of an impact on classrooms—which might become a lot tougher if the cuts stay in place for yet another year.

Other states and districts were able to soften the blow by using federal funding flexibility to shift funds from previous years to help cover the shortfall. For example, New Jersey was able to ease its cut its federal funding loss roughly in half, from a projected $44.6 million to roughly $22.6 billion, according to a spokesman for the New Jersey department of education.

But that doesn't mean that the cuts are no big deal.

Under sequestration, which took effect in March, the Title I program, which is financed at roughly $14.5 billion, was cut by $725 million nationally. Special education state grants, funded at $11.6 billion, were cut by $600 million. Overall, those were the most significant cuts to key formula grant programs in recent history, according to the Committee for Education Funding.

In some cases, that's meant some prioritizing. The 34,000-student Cincinnati school district lost about $4 million out of roughly $54 million in federal funding thanks to sequestration.

That didn't directly translate into layoffs, but it's going to impact instruction just the same: The district put-off some necessary technology upgrades, including a $1 million computer refresh to prepare for online tests linked to the Common Core State Standards. And, Cincinnati cut a contract for school-based technology support by $500,000 and put-off spending about $300,000 in additional software upgrades, in addition to trimming professional development.

But, for other districts, the cuts have actually lead to job losses. The 1,600-student Rockford Area school district in Minnesota lost roughly $19,250 of its Title I funds, which meant the loss of one paraprofessional position, according to Paul Durand, the superintendent.

Still, he noted that it's tough for a small school district to tell which funding reductions are due to sequestration, and which might be the result of other factors, such as changes in enrollment, or cuts to local and state funding.

Kathy Murphy, the superintendent of Monroe County schools in the southwestern corner of Alabama, a high-poverty district that's heavily reliant on federal funds, seconded that. Murphy lost 13 staff positions this year, some through attrition, and others through layoffs. But she isn't sure which job losses directly resulted from sequestration.

"What we know is that we have less teachers employed," she said. "How much of this we can put at the feet of sequestration and how much can put at the feet of declining enrollment because of foundering economy? It's hard to parcel out which is which."

Maybe the hardest hit? The 1,200 districts that rely on roughly $1.2 billion in federal Impact Aid. Some might have to close down schools, thanks in part to the cuts, according to this report by the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, which we wrote about here.

What's next? The battle over sequestration is likely just beginning anew. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a Republican-backed bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would lock the cuts in place. And the House GOP budget blueprint appears to leave the cuts to domestic discretionary spending (the broad category that includes education) in place.

The Democratically controlled Senate Appropriations Committee gave a partisan stamp of approval to a spending bill for federal fiscal year 2014, which starts Oct.1, that would essentially "pretend sequestration never happened," according to Clare McCann, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation's Federal Education Budget Project.

So what does that mean? Probably yet another round of budget wrangling and uncertainty, according to Joel Packer, the executive director of CEF. Packer, a veteran education funding lobbyist, is not expecting a big, grand, elusive deal anytime soon.

"I don't think there's going to be one big final package," he said. "There's going to be multiple fights and crises and [short-term] budget bills."

School districts and state officials: What's been your experience with sequestration? I'll be continuing to follow this issue. Email me at [email protected] with any stories of budget cuts, good budget planning, or fiscal gymnastics.

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