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Sequestration Cuts Sting, Say Impact Aid Districts

As Congress struggles to pass a budget stopgap measure, advocates are stepping up their fight against sequestration—the series of across-the-board cuts to federal programs that hit last March and are slated to stay in place for a decade unless Brokedown Congress acts.

The districts hardest hit by these cuts? The roughly 1,200 that receive federal Impact Aid. Those are typically districts that lose out on tax revenue thanks to a federal presence, such as a nearby military base or Native American reservation.

Those districts have been the poster children for sequestration since before the cuts were enacted—U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even came to their legislative conference last March to draw attention to their plight.

Apparently, the sting of sequestration is not going away for these districts. Many Impact Aid districts have already done things like delay purchases of technology and textbooks and cut positions through attrition. Now there are fewer easy cuts to make, superintendents from heavily impacted districts said at a briefing this morning on Capitol Hill.

"These cuts are only going to get worse," Clint Bowers, the policy and research associate at the National Indian Education Association said during the briefing.

And in some cases, the reductions already have been very painful. Sonia Kuessner, the superintendent of the Van Buren School District in Van Buren, Mo., said at the briefing that she had to double the size of her kindergarten classes from 15 to 30 students. Her own son is in one of these overcrowded classrooms, she said. She's also had to close one building and is planning to close another. Meanwhile, Michelle Hoffman, who recently retired as superintendent of the Fremont County School District in Ethete, Wyo., said the district had to cut 17 teaching positions, plus 10 teaching assistants.

So how has sequestration effected regular, garden-variety districts? It's actually pretty tough to say—there don't seem to be the massive job losses that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan initially predicted. That's likely because states and districts (which, after all, kick in about 90 percent of the funding for K-12) increased funding for education in the wake of the economic recovery. Districts were also given a long planning window, and found ways to ensure that the cuts had as little impact as possible on the classroom. Much more here.

Still, advocates are working to draw attention to the harm the cuts could do if they're allowed to stay in place. For instance, the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition, is holding a faux "bake sale" on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to highlight the impact of sequestration on schools.

Will sequestration actually go away anytime soon? It's tough to say. But Joel Packer, the executive director of the CEF, isn't optimistic.

"I think, at best, they'll come up with a one-year fix," he explained. "I'm sure we'll be fighting this exact same fight next year." In fact, he added, the fiscal showdowns could go on even longer than that. "I think the reality is that neither side has enough political strength to force the other side" to work its will, he said. "These fights are going to continue until after the 2016 presidential election."  

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