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Answering Your Shutdown Questions

UPDATED

The shutdown of the federal government is now officially in Week Two, with no apparent end in sight. So far, school districts seem to have been spared the vast majority of the pain, but that doesn't mean folks in the education field don't have questions about the shutdown. A couple of days ago, we asked you to send us yours—and promised to answer them. And, unlike Congress, we try to keep our promises. 

Here we go:

When will local districts start seeing an impact in schools? What's the red line date when they start hurting?

There really is no clear "red line" date. The vast majority of districts won't see a dip in the big, formula programs that finance most schools—including Title I and special education—because those programs are what's called "forward funded." That's a complicated federal term, which basically boils down to districts getting most of their federal money for the upcoming school year over the summer and in the early fall. And before they left on their furloughs, U.S. Department of Education employees made sure the dollars would keep flowing, preparing some $22 billion in formula funds to go out the door, as scheduled, in October.

School nutrition programs, however, are a completely different story. Those programs are only funded into October. While states may have some left over funds from last fiscal year that they can carry forward, school nutrition is one program that could face serious problems in a protracted shutdown. 

Districts that get federal Impact Aid are a whole different story. Impact Aid is one of the few K-12 Education Department programs that's current-year funded, meaning districts are counting on those dollars to get them through the school year. In a normal budget year, the first payments don't make their way to districts until late October at the earliest, according to John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.  

In recent years however, Congress has passed a series of short-term stopgap funding measures (called Continuing Resolutions). That's complicated things for Impact Aid districts, some of which have begun asking for their payments early. With the federal government shuttered, however, there's been no one to handle those requests, and thus, no early payments. (More here.) The bottom line is that a long, drawn out shutdown—beyond just a couple of weeks—could squeeze Impact Aid districts. 

Head Start is in a different position altogether. Centers that get their payments in October—23 nationwide, serving nearly 19,000 children total—were beginning to close, until a pair of private philanthropists came through with a generous, $10 million donation. But that isn't going to help November grantees—a much bigger crop, serving more than 86,000 children total. If Congress doesn't get its act together soon, we may hear of more Head Start centers closing.

How will the shutdown affect state and local budgets?

That's another great question. The federal government is a relatively minor player in K-12 funding. State and local governments pick up 90 percent of the tab, so what happens to them matters a lot to schools. While public schools aren't likely to be affected directly, lots of other programs that children—and states—rely on are, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (or TANF). Other programs that are OK for now (such as food stamps) could run into trouble in the event of a protracted shutdown (one that goes beyond October). In some cases, state and local governments—the primary drivers of K-12 education funding—may have to pick up the slack. It's unclear at this point what kind of an impact that would have on K-12 schools. But it's never good news for districts when states and local governments are being squeezed—particularly as they are just beginning to find their footing in an economic recovery.

More on how the shutdown is impacting programs related to children in this great blog post from the smart folks at CLASP, an advocacy group.

Will Race to the Top for districts be canceled?

No! In fact, the Education Department may bring back some employees to run the latest round of the Race to the Top district contest, although no one has been recalled yet, Cameron French, a department spokesman, said. The department received 219 applications, despite some hiccups with delivery. The money must go out before the end of the calendar year (Dec. 31).

UPDATE: Race to the Top early learning grants are also due next week, by Oct. 16. 

Will Education Department employees on furlough get back pay?

Likely, yes. The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill that would give back pay to furloughed workers. The Senate is expected to take the bill up soon, and the White House supports the measure.

Does this mean ED won't return my calls?

It depends on who you're calling and what you're asking for. More than 90 percent of Education Department staff members have been furloughed. Calls on issues such as No Child Left Behind Act waiver implementation have been put on the back burner, for example. But there are still employees working—including the folks in the communications office, so reporters are still getting their questions answered. (Thank goodness.)

For more on the shutdown, check out our cheat sheet, and this story on the fallout from Week One. 

Got another shutdown question? Want to share a story about how the shutdown has affected schools in your district or your state education agency? Email aklein@epe.org, mmcneil@epe.org, or tweet us @PoliticsK12.

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