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Should Arne Duncan Decide How to Distribute the Sequester Cuts?

So if you were hoping to wake up to a deal that ends the government shutdown and raises the debt ceiling, you were sorely disappointed. Talks continue today. And, education advocates are worried that if the feds don't deal with sequestration (those five percent, across-the-board cuts) this fall, the window may be closed for a long time (story here).

A recent proposal by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a moderate, would keep the sequestration cuts in place for another six months, but would give agencies flexibility to decide where to make the reductions. Although the Collins proposal has run into trouble, particularly among Democrats who are upset about the fact that it would lock the cuts in place for another six months, the idea could pop up again as talks remain fluid.

So would a more-targeted sequester placate education advocates who have been pushing for an end to the cuts practically forever?

Not so much, said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding.

"I'm not sure [Secretary Duncan] would actually do anything [differently]," he said. "There really are just a few big programs. Theoretically, he could say, 'I'm not going to cut special education, but the money would have to come from someplace else'." And there aren't many pockets ripe for cuts.

The administration has also not been a fan of sequester flexibility. See this story for more

Sequestration took a $2.4 billion bite out of the U.S. Department of Education's budget. That's roughly the same amount as Congress spends on state grants to improve teacher quality at K-12 schools. Even if the department completely eliminated all of the Obama administration's favorite competitive grant programs, which have some big detractors in Congress, they wouldn't come close. (The math: Race to the Top was funded at nearly $520 million, Investing in Innovation was funded at nearly $142 million, the School Improvement Grants were funded at roughly $505 million, and Promise Neighborhoods was funded at nearly $57 million—that's roughly $1.2 billion, or essentially, only halfway there.)

And many of the smaller, more targeted programs in the department were cut years ago. Bottom line: It would lead to some very difficult choices.

Meanwhile, sequestration is still in effect at the department, which lost $301 million in mandatory funding earlier this month. The cuts generally effected higher education, including minority serving instutions, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, according to a CEF analysis. 

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