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Here We Go Again? How a Government Shutdown Could Impact Schools

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Did you miss games of chicken over keeping the federal government open? Your happy days might be here again.

On April 28, the measure Congress approved late last year to keep the government funded for fiscal 2017—known in Beltway lingo as a "continuing resolution"—will expire. Without it, major parts of the government will cease to operate. President Donald Trump's administration has sent lawmakers a spending proposal that would cover the rest of fiscal 2017, which ends Sept. 30, including major cuts to Title II grants for teaching programs. But so far, Congress hasn't been eager to enact Trump's fiscal 2017 spending plan. (All this is separate from Trump's fiscal 2018 budget plan, in which Title II state grants would be eliminated entirely. That 2018 Trump spending plan also isn't particularly popular on Capitol Hill.)

Politically, the shutdown would also be notable because unlike during past shutdown showdowns of President Barack Obama's tenure, Republicans control the legislative and executive branches of government. By no means are we saying it's a certainty, or even likely. But what happens if Trump and Congress can't agree on some sort of 2017 spending plan by April 28?

We reached out to the Education Department to ask about the impact of a potential shutdown. So far, we have not heard back, but we'll update this post if we do. For some background about what's happened in past years, check out our stories from 2013 and 2015. Short version:

  • Most school districts ultimately didn't feel a whole lot of pain.
  • Former Secretary Arne Duncan still had to go into work. 
  • In 2013, the vast majority of department staff (more than 90 percent) was slated to be furloughed during the first week of the shutdown.

However, there are a few programs where a shutdown would be felt pretty quickly, as well as a few wrinkles that make this potential shutdown a little different from previous ones. 

Impact Aid

This is the part of the Education Department budget that deals with districts where federal activities have an effect, such as military operations and Indian reservations. About 1,200 districts with over 10 million students enrolled get Impact Aid. Unlike big-ticket federal programs like Title I, Impact Aid isn't forward-funded, so it's very sensitive to when federal budgets are agreed to and the money is distributed from Washington. 

Jocelyn Bissonnette, the director of government affairs for the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, said there are three potential consequences of a shutdown on her districts:

  • The technical assistance the department provides to Impact Aid districts may stop.
  • A shutdown, as well as an extension of the continuing resolution, can lead to delayed payments for districts. That may force at least some of them to seek short-term loans to cover operating expenses. (More on the cycle of Impact Aid finances here.)
  • There would also be just more budget uncertainty, especially when it comes to districts' attempts to finalize their budgets for the upcoming school year. 

"Even in a year where the process works perfectly, districts have to monitor their budgets closely," Bissonnette said.

The last time we had this showdown, about 100 of the 1,200 districts asked for early Impact Aid money, a sign that they relied heavily on the cash to sustain their opertaions. 

Head Start

During the last government shutdown in 2013, thousands of children were briefly kicked out of Head Start programs, which are run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Centers in six states closed and about 7,000 children lost access to Head Start at least briefly, although a private foundation then stepped in to restore money to programs.

"We know well the devastating impacts government shutdowns or potential government shutdowns can have on the 1 million vulnerable children we serve every year," said Sally Aman, a spokeswoman for the National Head Start Associaation. 

Every Student Succeeds Act

Separate from any budget concerns, it's also unclear how a shutdown would disrupt any conversations between the department and states still developing their plans for ESSA.

That's not to say that the plans themselves and the submission process would be heavily disrupted necessarily—it's hard to envision a shutdown's impact reaching all the way into September, when the final slate of ESSA plans is due. But if staff assigned to ESSA have to stay away from the department for any extended period, states' questions about various issues could go unanswered. 

Looking Ahead

Even though a shutdown may not leave a huge footprint on most schools, the uncertainty surrounding how much districts are going to end up with in fiscal 2017 still causes heartburn for local school officials, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

"The lack of a final [fiscal year] number is extremely disruptive to the numbers that school districts have to put before their communities," Ellerson Ng said. 

As former department staffer Mike Smith told us awhile back, the assistance the department would normally provide after an unexpected event or emergency, like a mass school shooting, may not be possible during a government shutdown. 

The Washington Post reported recently that lawmakers are confidently working on a bipartisan basis to keep the government fully up and running passed April 28. But any such deal, which may not include funding for high-profile Trump priorities in the president's proposed fiscal 2017 budget, would also need the president's approval.

Photo: A sign indicating the closure of the Lincoln Memorial is posted on a barricade in Washington in 2013 following a federal government shutdown. 


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