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How Are Lawmakers, Education Advocates Fighting Sequestration?

Advocates for education, health, and labor programs crammed into a Capitol Hill hearing room Thursday for a rally/strategy session on how best to bring attention to the impact sequestration (those across- the-board federal budget cuts) are having on K-12 and other domestic programs. The event was lead by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the panel that oversees K-12 spending  and an outspoken critic of the cuts.

Education organizations have been pushing back on reductions to K-12 schools, higher education, and Head Start for nearly three years—so why the big push now? Well, it's crunch time, yet again: A bipartisan budget panel is supposed to report to Congress next month (Dec. 13 to be exact).  

The panel likely represents the best hope for making changes to the sequestration cuts for the next couple years. The cuts are slated to be in place for a decade and have hit both defense programs, favored by Republicans, and domestic programs, favored by Democrats. And there's worry in the education-advocacy community that Congress could roll back some cuts for defense, but not for domestic programs, like education.

"We cannot accept a deal that makes defense whole but leaves devastating cuts in the programs that give people a chance in life.  We need sufficient revenue to meet our needs," Harkin told the crowd. "This is about giving people hope, giving people a chance. "

He singled out cuts to AmeriCorps and the National Institutes of Health as particularly devastating.

"Everyone deserves a chance.  I got a chance.  I grew up in poverty ... my father had a 6th grade education ... my mother was an immigrant.  But I got a chance, society was good to me.  We must take care of the hopes of the next generation," Harkin said. He even read from this Langston Hughes poem.

Harkin encouraged advocates for different domestic programs to continue to sound the alarm bells about what cuts are doing to real people—and urged them to make their case to lawmakers across the political spectrum, including moderate senators in the mold of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and others who may not see the impact of the cuts on their districts.

Education advocates have spent the past few weeks lobbying hard. The Committee for Education Funding, for example, has targeted the members of the budget panel, but also 30 House Republicans who have a habit of voting for bills that have passed despite a lack of support from the majority of House GOP lawmakers. The list includes Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the former education committee chairman, who has a record of successfully working across the aisle.

Why reach out to those House Republicans? If the budget negotiators come up with a deal that spares education from sequestration, those GOP lawmakers may be the folks who will vote to support it, even if most of the rest of their caucus doesn't, explained Joel Packer, the executive director of the CEF.

And next week a giant coalition of groups bent on fighting sequestration for domestic programs—the somewhat awkwardly named Non-Defense Discretionary coalition—will be putting out a report detailing the impact of the sequester, entitled "The Faces of Austerity." They'll roll it out at an event that's slated to feature folks who have been hurt by the cuts, including a Head Start representative.

Education advocates have had, in some ways, a tough time making the case that sequestration has been a big issue for K-12 schools, since the cuts have been slow-moving, uneven, and hard to quantify. The schools that have been hit the hardest include those that receive federal Impact Aid, which helps districts make up for tax revenue lost because of a federal presence, such as a Native American reservation, nearby.

But, thanks to a brightening state budget picture and changes to federal funding put in place by the administration's waivers from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, many K-12 schools have been able to cope with the cuts, at least for now. The situation is likely to get worse, advocates warn, if the cuts are in place for a decade or more. 

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