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Senate Deal Would Leave K-12 Sequestration in Place

The prospect of further budget cuts to federal agencies—including the U.S. Department of Education—would remain in place, for now, under a budget deal reportedly reached by Republican and Democratic U.S. Senate leaders. But the agreement would open the door to lifting the threat of another round of cuts set to hit districts during the 2014-15 school year.

The agreement, which has bipartisan backing but still must pass both chambers of Congress, would reopen the government, keeping programs funded at fiscal year 2013 levels until Jan. 15. The end of the partial shutdown would be good news for Impact Aid and the Head Start program, which were expected to feel some major budget pain if the impasse dragged on. More than 90 percent of Education Department employees have been on furlough, and the department has a long to-do list to tackle when they return.

The deal would also raise the federal debt limit until early February. That would give lawmakers time and space to find a broader budget solution before another round of sequestration cuts is set to hit agencies in January. Expect the sequester cuts to be front and center in coming few months: The agreement would create a "budget conference committee", a bicameral panel charged with figuring out what to do about sequestration, among other broad budget issues. It would have to come up with recommendations by mid-December.

The committee would be lead by the budget committee chairs in both chambers: Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a former preschool teacher and fan of education funding, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., a former vice-presidential candidate. Ryan's proposed budget spurred a lot of criticism from education advocates during the 2012 election.( The panel sounds a bit like the supercommittee, which failed to do a similar job back in 2011.)

One item that could be up for discussion: Whether to allow the executive branch more flexibilty on deciding exactly where the sequester cuts should fall. Right now, the cuts are across-the-board on everything. The idea of extra flexibility, though, hasn't gone over well with education advocates and the Obama administration. More on why here.

Bottom line: The next few months may present the clearest opportunity for education advocates to turn off the automatic sequestration cuts—it could be a lot tougher if the cuts stay in place well into 2014, an election year. Sequestration is slated to stay in place for a decade, unless lawmakers come up with some sort of alternative solution.

"If they don't do it now, there's this feeling in the education community that the sequestration cuts are permanent," said Michael Griffith,  a school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

How much has sequestration mattered to schoools? The impact has been slow-moving, uneven, and in some cases, difficult to quantify. During the first year of the cuts, districts were largely able to blunt their impact, thanks to rosier state finances. But that kind of budget gymnastics might get tougher as time goes on. More here

 

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