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Sequestration Stings Impact Aid Districts, Survey Says

Sequestration has already battered schools that receive federal Impact Aid—and the situation seems likely to get even more dismal if the automatic federal budget cuts stay in place for another year or longer, according to a survey released Friday by the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, or NAFIS.

Just this school year, districts have taken drastic action to cope with the cuts, which totaled 5 percent across the board in the fiscal year that just ended. Districts eliminated instructional staff positions and closed down or consolidated schools. (Impact Aid helps districts with a federal presence, such as a military base or Native American reservation, make up for lost tax revenue.)

First, some methodology: NAFIS sent the survey to 395 districts, and got 298 responses (a 75 percent response rate), between August and October of this year. All types of Impact Aid districts, including both military and American Indian-land districts, were represented. NAFIS released a similar survey over the summer, which you should definitely take a look at for comparison's sake. 

How are districts coping with the cuts? Of those surveyed, 144 districts put off maintenance or deferred purchases; 112  eliminated non-instructional staff; 102 boosted class size, 96 slashed professional development, and 94 cut instructional staff.

What's more, 54 districts cut back on academic programs, 41 cut into their transportation budgets, and eight closed or consolidated schools. Districts are also spending down their reserve dollars, freezing salaries, cutting back on field trips and supplies, boosting food prices, and doing less outreach to the community. Oh, and deficit spending, according to the survey. 

Got any anecdotes? The survey is chock full of them. For instance, one district, in Oklahoma, had to put off repairs to a 63-year-old high school. And seven districts worried that the sequester was having a big impact on their ability to fund professional development for the Common Core State Standards and purchase the technology needed to offer new aligned assessments. 

Why so much focus on impact aid? These districts are disproportionately dependent on federal funds—many of them get not only Impact Aid, but also Title I and special education funding, too. And many, particularly those on Native American reservations, serve very poor children.

Making matters even worse: Most federal programs are "forward funded," meaning that money Congress theoretically approves in October (or sometime in the fall or winter) doesn't make its way to district coffers until the summer, in time for the start of the school year. But Impact Aid districts are in a special situation—they get their money throughout the school year. And that makes them way more dependent on Brokedown Congress—the end of the recent government shutdown came just before Impact Aid districts would have felt a serious squeeze, for example.

Because of that unusual budget situation, the sequester—which went into effect in March—has hit Impact Aid districts during two separate school years, while most other districts have only had to deal with one school year. And the impact was tougher to take the second time around: Eighty-six percent of the districts surveyed by NAFIS fit the sequester cuts into their 2013-14 school year budgets, as opposed to 36 percent during the 2012-13 school year.

Is everyone doing this badly under the sequester? No. The impact of sequestration on schools in general has been slow-moving, uneven, and tough to quantify. That's partly because the feds are only about a 10 percent investor in K-12, and partly because the federal budget cuts hit at a time when most state revenues were getting rosier. It was a "good real news, bad political news" story for education advocates, according to Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. More here

But, it may be a whole different story if sequestration stays in place for years, advocates warn, particularly if state budgets start to take a downturn. That's why it's so important to pay attention to the action this fall, when Congress will make long-term recommendations on the budget. Advocates see that as their best opportunity to get rid of sequestration, possibly for years. 

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