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Will Debt Deal Slow States' Education Agendas?

The congressional deal to approve raising the federal debt ceiling could cut the flow of some federal money to states, education advocates warn.

And that slowdown could hinder states that are pushing for ambitious—and sometimes expensive—changes in teacher evaluation, assessment, academic standards, and other areas, an official for a top state schools organization says.

States have been major laboratories for change in those areas, noted Chris Minnich, the senior membership director for the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington. But those changes cost money, and given the battered condition of state budgets, governors, legislators, and others will be forced to make tough choices about what programs to fund. Those choices will come at a time when many states are at a critical point in developing new strategies to pay and evaluate teachers and make other policy changes.

"States are some of the ones leading these reforms," Minnich said. "We need to hold onto these core investments."

Minnich was just one of the people we've called to gauge reaction to the debt-ceiling agreement, and the prospect of federal cuts in education. Like most of them, he acknowledged that it's hard to know what's coming, giving the vague parameters of the deal and the options facing federal lawmakers.

Like some other education advocates, Minnich said he was grateful that programs such as Pell Grants have been spared from the federal cuts for the time being. But he said more significant cuts could come later, through the decisions made by the bipartisan committee established under the agreement, or through the budget "trigger" that forces reductions in federal spending, if the committee doesn't produce a plan or Congress doesn't approve it, he said.

"The future cuts are more dangerous than what's occurring now," Minnich said.

Of course, the federal government has already made a heavy investment in pushing along efforts in teacher evaluation, standards, and assessments, perhaps most notably through the $4.35 federal Race to the Top program. (The Department of Education says that money, along with money through the $10 billion Education Jobs Fund, has already been allocated and is not in jeopardy.)

But it's probably important to note that state and local officials in winning Race to the Top states have questioned whether federal dollars will cover all of their costs—meaning they could have to dig into their own state and local, budgets to carry out elements of their plans.

Another big player in state education policy, the National Governors Association, believes that cuts in spending "should be designed to produce savings for both the federal government and states," spokeswoman Jodi Omear said in an e-mail.

As lawmakers make decisions about where to cut, governors will urge them to give states increased flexibility, and emphasize that "deficit reduction should not be accomplished by merely shifting costs to states or imposing unfunded mandates," she added.

I'll put this question out to readers: How deep would federal cuts to the states have to be before they interfered with states' work in teacher evaluation and other areas?

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