Here we go again: Brokedown Congress is gearing up for its umpteenth game of fiscal chicken, as lawmakers have to craft not one, but likely three separate budget agreements over the next several months to keep the federal government from shuttering.
And yet again, education programs—which have already taken a more-than 5 percent hit through "sequestration"—are caught in the crosshairs.
The latest, completely unsurprising development: A stop-gap spending measure, written by House Republicans, that would fund the government until Dec. 15, doesn't do anything to alleviate the cuts, which are slated to stay in place for a decade. The Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition, sent a letter to Capitol Hill Wednesday opposing the measure because it "locks in the harmful sequester cuts."
Passing that continuing resolution may not be easy, since some Republicans would like to use the opportunity to defund the president's landmark health care initiative, aka Obamacare. If Congress isn't able to get the stop-gap measure done by Sept. 30—which marks the end of fiscal year 2014—the government could shut down.
And even if lawmakers are able to reach agreement, we're not out of the woods yet. Other dates to know: Mid-October, when Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling (again, in order to keep the government running) and November/December (when Congress will likely finish the actual fiscal year 2014 spending bill, not just a stop-gap measure. Again, prospect of a shutdown.) Lawmakers are still waiting for the grand bargain, which so far has proved elusive.
What all this means is that education advocates must yet again fight the sequestration cuts. The problem: While the cuts to Head Start and federal Impact Aid are really obvious and quite dramatic in some cases, most K-12 schools were largely able to absorb them without the massive layoffs that the administration predicted. Much more here.
That's partly because states and districts had plenty of warning that the cuts were coming, and partly because many states and districts—which together kick in about 90 percent of overall K-12 spending anyway—actually increased education spending, even as the feds cut.
That's great for actual children and teachers, but it does make it tough for Inside-the-Beltway folks to make the case that sequestration for education is harmful and needs to be stopped.
"It's a good real news, bad political news story," said Joel Packer the executive director of CEF. "The reality is that school districts' budgets are complex, they get money from multiple sources. The federal share is far less than the majority."
And advocates are getting battle weary—Packer described the perennial fiscal fights as "like World War I trench warfare. ... It's essentially one war with multiple fights."
Here's the argument you can expect to hear from the education community this fall: This year, districts may have been able to rejigger their budgets, but things are likely to get much worse if the cuts stay in place.
"This is going to be become more dire of a situation as cuts continue to come down the pike," said Jocelyn Bissonnette, the director of government affairs for the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.
To draw attention to the cuts, CEF will be holding a "bake sale" up on Capitol Hill in late September, featuring actual cookies marked with the actual amount of money each program lost. And, on Sept. 24, the cuts will be a big theme at NAFIS' fall conference—with representatives from Native American and military districts discussing the sequester has had on them. (U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan dropped by a similar event last spring.)