So it's happened: Congress was unable to reach agreement on temporary spending plan to keep the government open—and the U.S. Department of Education and other government agencies are on partial shutdown. It's the first time this has happened since the Clinton administration, back in 1995 and 1996.
While that means a much quieter day at 400 Maryland Ave, most schools and school districts aren't going to be immediately affected by a short-term shutdown. A longer-term shutdown, however, could cause more headaches. See our preview here of the Education Department's shutdown plan.
Below are the answers to some frequently asked questions about what happens now:
How many people will report to work at the Education Department? A lot fewer than usual. More than 90 percent of the department's employees—about 4,000 people in all—will be furloughed for the first week of the shutdown. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, of course, still has to come in. If the shutdown goes on for more than a week, more employees could return on a temporary basis, but it would not be more than 6 percent of the department's staff.
This could lead to a frustrating situation for districts and state education agencies that are trying to get quick answers to their questions—furloughed federal employees aren't even supposed to be checking their work email today.
Will there be any delay to formula funds, such as Title I, special education, and career and technical education? For the most part, no. Employees will be on hand to ensure that roughly $22 billion in formula funds to states and districts makes it out the door, as scheduled, in October.
What about competitive-grant programs? Race to the Top, Investing and Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods still have fiscal year 2013 money left that needs to be allocated by Dec. 31. Department employees may return to finish that job. (Fiscal year 2013 technically ended on Sept. 30.)
What about student loans and college aid? Pell grants and federal student loans would largely be unaffected by the shutdown. Campus-based aid programs, such as Work Study, wouldn't be so lucky.
Impact Aid always seems to be a special case in these federal budget situations. Is that the deal this time? Sort of. Districts that receive federal Impact Aid dollars usually don't get their money until late October, even in a typical, functional budget year, according to John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. (Impact Aid goes out to some 1,200 districts that lose out on tax revenue, thanks to a federal presence, such as a Native American reservation or a military base nearby.)
If the shutdown goes on for a long time though—or if Congress passes a series of very short-term extension measures keeping the government open for just a week or two while lawmakers hammer out their differences, things could get messy for Impact Aid districts. Last year, for example, some had to ask for an advanced payment on some of their funding, in part because there were so many short-term spending bills.
But so far, the districts aren't in full-on alarm mode. "I haven't had anybody call yet in a panic state," Forkenbrock said.
What about money from other agencies? School lunch? E-rate? Head Start? Funding for most child nutrition programs, including school lunch and school breakfast programs, which are run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will continue through October. More in the USDA's shutdown plan.
Head Start, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is trickier. There are some 1,600 grantees but just 23 would have their grants affected by a short-term shutdown, according to an HHS spokesman. Overall, those centers serve nearly 19,000 children.
So are all of those children stuck at home today? Not necessarily, the spokesman said. Some programs' budgets might be able to accommodate a temporary delay in funding; others may fill in with reserve funds. More in the HHS shutdown plan.
As for the E-rate, the funds will continue to flow during the shutdown. The Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the program, is essentially separate from the federal government, so it will be business as usual. The only caveat? If USAC needs guidance from the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees E-Rate, it will have to wait until after the shutdown.
Overall, that doesn't sound so bad. A short-term shutdown really isn't so bad, for most districts. In fact, if the shutdown doesn't last very long, most may not notice a huge difference, said Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators.
"With a short term shutdown, the impact won't be any more discernible to school districts than the current dysfunction attributable to sequestration and the lack of ESEA reauthorization," she said.
A longer-term shutdown is a different animal. "A protracted delay in Department obligations and payments beyond one week would severly curtail the cash flow to school districts, colleges and universities, and vocational rehabilitation agencies that depend on the Department to support their services," department officials wrote in their shutdown plan.
What happens down the road? This might not be the last fiscal showdown, by a long shot. In fact, we've got another deadline coming up soon—Congress must raise the debt ceiling, likely in mid-October. If lawmakers can't make that happen, there could be major implications for school districts, states—and the overall economy. That could be much worse than the shutdown. More on this here.
That doesn't sound good at all. Why is this happening? It has nothing to do with schools, really. Instead, it's all about whether there should be a temporary delay (or defunding) of the president's landmark Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Everything you ever wanted to know about how we got to this point in the budget crisis and where we're going here.
Advocates are watching the situation closely—and are hoping for some certainty soon. "As educators work to ensure that every student has the best possible chance to succeed, instability in federal funding - including the sequester, the shutdown, and possible issues around the debt ceiling - threatens our ability to deliver a world-class education," said Carissa Miller, the deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
So what has it been like to be working at a government agency in the midst of all this? Sort of strange, employees say. It's made the end of the federal fiscal year, usually a busy time, even more hectic.
"Employees have worked extremely hard to make sure that all grants and contracts are awarded and other matters completed under the pressure of the ending of the fiscal year," said Cameron French, a spokesman for the Education Department. "We continue to make sure that our students, teachers, and schools are supported, while facing the possibility of challenging circumstances."
What does Duncan have to say about all this? He's not too happy with Congress, as you can imagine. "Right now our country faces stark choices: We can continue to play politics with the budget and the debt ceiling, or we can fund a federal government that Americans count on," the education secretary said in a speech Monday at the National Press Club.
Photo: A sign indicating the closure of the Lincoln Memorial is posted on a barricade in Washington on Tuesday. Congress plunged the nation into a partial government shutdown as a long-running dispute over President Barack Obama's health care law stalled a temporary funding bill, forcing about 800,000 federal workers off the job and suspending most non-essential federal programs and services. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)