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Education Department Updates Its Government Shutdown Plan

A government shutdown on Oct. 1 now looks much less likely now that Rep. John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, has announced plans to step down at the end of next month. That will probably make it a lot easier for Congress to reach a short-term spending deal. 

But the U.S. Department of Education is clearly a fan of the boy-scout motto: Be prepared. Especially since the next shutdown drama might not be that far away.

Late last week, the agency posted an updated version of its shutdown plan on its website. And, just as during the last shutdown in 2013, 90 percent of the department's staff, or roughly 4,000 people, would be furloughed.

Impact Aid, which helps districts with a big federal presence (think military base or Native American reservation) make up for lost tax revenue, and Head Start, an early childhood education program, would likely be the first programs to feel the pinch of a shutdown.

In fact, Head Start advocates are already warning that nearly two dozen centers, serving about 19,000 students could be forced to temporarily close if the government shutsdown on Oct. 1. That was a huge problem for Head Start centers during the last shutdown—and as of a late last week a few centers were trying to figure out how best to prepare.

Most other federal programs, such as Title I funding for disadvantaged students and state grants for special education, barely missed a beat during the last shutdown. But this time, the department is expecting to send out $23 billion in financing for those programs, plus state grants for teacher quality and money for career and technical education.

If a shutdown drags on for a more than a week, school districts may feel the loss of funding, especially in states and districts that have cut their own spending, the department's memo warns.

And a long shutdown could also trip-up the distribution of some competitive grant money, including Investing in Innovation, Promise Neighborhoods, and Preschool Development grants. Those funds are supposed to be out the door by the end of the year.

Most federal grants will continue to flow, but the shutdown might hit a less-than-ideal time for direct loans (that's student loans that are made right from the Treasury). The department still has some work to do on this front, including end-of-year closeouts and reporting. This work is so important, in fact, that the department might seek to keep it going, even if the government closes its doors.

After all, even though the most immediate crisis appears to have been averted by Boehner's upcoming resignation, the current showdown over whether to defund Planned Parenthood is just the first in a series of potential fiscal fights this fall.

Even though Boehner's resignation makes it a lot more likely Congress will be able to pass a short-term spending bill, it's probably not a terrible idea to hang on to the department's shutdown plan. Congress will still need to figure out a long-term game plan to deal with sequestration (those big trigger cuts to military and domestic programs that Congress can't seem to get rid of, even though almost no one likes them.) 

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