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The Government Shutdown and K-12 Education: Your Guide

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Here we go again: President Donald Trump and Congress were unable to reach agreement on temporary spending plan late last week to keep the government open, so the U.S. Department of Education and other government agencies were on a partial shutdown as of midnight Friday. It's the first time this has happened in four years. 

Lawmakers then spent the weekend trying to hammer out a deal. What's the practical implications? A short-term shutdown means a much quieter-than-usual situation at the department's headquarters at 400 Maryland Ave., but not much immediate impact at most school districts. A longer-term shutdown, however, could cause more headaches. Head Start, the federal preschool program, and Impact Aid to districts with a federal presence in their backyard would likely feel the pinch first. (See below for more). 

Below are the answers to some frequently asked questions about what happens because of a government shutdown:

How many people will still report to work at the Education Department? A lot fewer than usual. More than 90 percent of the department's nearly 4,000 employees will be furloughed for the first week of the shutdown. Of course, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her top aides still 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 check their work email. More in the department's shutdown plan. 

Will there be any delay to formula funds, such as Title I, special education, and career and technical education? Probably not. Those programs are "forward funded," meaning that school districts have had their money for this school year for months.

But the long budget fight does make it harder for districts to plan their spending for next year, in part because the Trump administration and the U.S. House of Representatives have moved to eliminate Title II, a $2 billion program aimed at improving teacher quality.

What about Impact Aid? Districts that receive federal Impact Aid dollars were among the first to feel the pain of the 2013 shutdown, which hit just as some districts were applying for early funding. Impact aid districts likely won't feel much of a pinch from a very short shutdown, lasting just a few days, said Bryan Jernigan, a spokesman for 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, things could get messy for Impact Aid districts. That's partly because Jan. 31 is the deadline for districts to apply for their full-year payments. Most wait until the last minute to submit their applications, the department has told NAFIS. If the shutdown goes on for a long time, there may not be anyone around to answer technical questions or resolve potential application glitches, Jernigan said. What's more, districts that submit late applications could be subject to a 10 percent reduction in funding. NAFIS isn't clear at this point if the secretary would be able to waive that penalty, given the circumstances.

Impact Aid districts are "unclear and a little nervous about what will happen" if the shutdown drags on, Jernigan said.

The timing of the 2013 shutdown, on Oct. 1, wasn't great for Impact Aid districts either. Some were in the middle of applying for early payments, but those didn't process because department staffers were furloughed. A handful of districts ended up having to take out short-term loans to make ends meet, Jernigan said.

What about the Head Start program? Head Start grantees receive their money annually, but not on a calendar year or fiscal-year cycle, explained Robin Winchell, the public affairs director for the National Head Start Association, an advocacy group. Instead, a portion of the nation's 1,600 grantees receive money on the first of every month. So a government shutdown won't affect funding for any programs, as long as it ends before the first of February.

The last time there was a government shutdown, it affected nearly two dozen grantees that were expecting funds by Oct. 1. Houston-based philanthropists John and Laura Arnold provided a $10 million interest-free loan to help keep affected centers open. 

What about implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act?  The Education Department has been approving plans at a fast and furious clip in recent weeks. So far, 33 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have gotten the green light. Seventeen are still waiting for an answer. The department, though, won't be able to do much during a shutdown, both when it comes to answering state education agency's specific questions and actually approving plans.

That's part of the reason advocates for state chiefs hope the government turns the lights back on soon.

"The shutdown of the federal government is never a positive step for our nation's schools or our students," said Stephen Bowen, interim deputy executive director at CCSSO. "Most immediately, it could halt the efforts of many states working to implement the Every Students Succeeds Act as they wait for staff at the U.S. Department of Education to review and approve their state plans. In the long term, it could have budget implications for states and schools. We hope our government's leaders find a resolution."

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 aren't so lucky. Oh, and the Office of Federal Financial Aid has already made it known it won't be fielding questions on Twitter.


What about school meals? Funding for most child nutrition programs, including school lunch and school breakfast programs, which are run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would not be affected by the shutdown, according to the School Nutrition Association, an advocacy organization that tracks the issue.

What about federal data? Sorry, edu-researchers, you may be out of luck. Back in 2013, folks trying to access the Institute of Education Sciences web site or any of its ancillary sites (like the National Assessment of Educational Progress) were confronted with this message:

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There's a real possibility that will happen this time around too, if the standoff isn't resolved quickly.

Overall, that doesn't sound so bad. A short-term shutdown really isn't so bad. In fact, back in 2013, most school districts barely noticed that the government had shuttered its doors.

A longer-term shutdown is a different story. "A protracted delay in Department obligations and payments beyond one week would severely 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 released earlier this week.

Why is this happening? The funding fight doesn't have much to do with schools—it's all about immigration policy. Last year, President Donald Trump took steps to begin winding down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program. Unless Congress acts, the program will end in March. No one is exactly sure what that means for the 800,000 "Dreamers"—including thousands of teachers—who have gotten legal status through the program, which allows undocumented immigrants who came the country as children to remain here legally. Democrats say they won't vote for a funding bill without getting a fix for DACA, or at least an agreement to keep working on it. The Children's Health Insurance Program, which expired late last year, is also waiting for congressional action. A bill passed by the House to keep the government open would have extended funding for the program for six years.  More from the Washington Post

What happens next? Even if Congress and the White House are able to come some sort of compromise to turn the government's lights back on soon, that may not be the end of the story. Any deal is likely to include a temporary funding measure, which means there's a possibility we may be right back here in Shutdown Land a few days or week from now. 

Photo: Police tape marks a secured area of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 19 in Washington, as a divided Congress hurtles toward a government shutdown. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Associate Editor Christina Samuels contributed to this post. 


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