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U.S. House Democrats: Sequestration Has Squeezed Schools

Remember sequestration, those 5 percent across-the-board cuts to federal programs that went into effect last March? These days, with the debt-ceiling debate and the shutdown sucking up all of the oxygen in Washington, it seems some in Congress may have pushed them to the backburner. 

To bring the issue back into the spotlight, Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrats on the committees overseeing education funding and policy, put out a report Thursday detailing how the sequester cuts have hit school districts around the country.

For instance, they say, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District has had to eliminate all of its school social workers, thanks to cuts in Title I funding. And they say that Travis City Unified School District in Fairfield, Calif., now  has a high school average class size of 39, thanks to federal cuts. Broward County schools in Florida have eliminated five of 11 behaviorial specialists, 10 special education program specialists, and an assistive technology position, due to cuts in special education funding. And Lee County schools in Florida elimiated about 100 paraprofessionals and specialists who work with students in special education, also due to reductions in special education funding.

However, some of the information in the report is outdated.

The report says that the Sioux City, Iowa, school district "is laying off up to 12 Title I reading staff, five special education staff, and 15 intervention staff funded through a federal grant."

The actual number of layoffs in the district due to sequestration? Zero, Alison Benson, a spokeswoman for the district, told me.  

While it's true that a number of teachers were pink-slipped back in March, the district was able to find new jobs for those folks, thanks to retirements and general attrition. The district did lay off one counselor, but that wasn't because of the loss of federal grant money, Benson said. All of the teachers pink-slipped due to sequestration found other positions in the district, she told me.

And while the district is down 10 Title I teachers overall compared to last year, Sioux City was able to partially make up for the loss by adding six new reading-intervention positions, paid for with state dollars. That's still, of course, a net loss, which will impact the district's neediest kids most directly.  

(Miller's staff told me they relied on local media stories to inform their report, pointing me to this published story from March. School districts frequently begin their budgeting process at that point but typically don't finalize everything until later in the year. Reduction-in-force notices are often retracted. We've put out calls to the other districts cited in the report and will add any other updates to the committees' findings.)

In any case, Sioux City's experience mirrors that of districts throughout the country, which ended up using their own state and local funds to help fill in where the feds had cut. (Much more in this story.) After all, state and local funding makes up more than 90 percent of K-12 financing nationally—so, the feds are a relatively minor investor. And, in many states, the fiscal picture is brightening, allowing states to help make up for the federal reductions.

The question facing schools and Congress: How long can states and local governments keep tapping their own money to make up for the loss of federal dollars? What if there's a sudden, major downturn in state revenues? Sequestration is slated to be in place for a decade unless Congress does something about it.

That seems to be the main point behind the lawmakers' report. 

"Earlier this year Sioux City faced a $300,000 hole in their budget due to the loss of federal funds from sequestration," said Tiffany Edwards, a spokeswoman for Miller, in an email. "Thousands of districts across the country are being forced to find ways to fill gaps caused by unstable federal funding but that approach is hardly sustainable.  It's time Republicans accept responsibility for these painful cuts and immediately restore funding to our nation's schools and other vital programs by ending the sequester."

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