By Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association (NEA)
It's been a year, so you may have forgotten the controversy that gripped us all last August. The GOP — egged on by Tea Party extremists in Congress — held the nation hostage to one of the most deceptive, manufactured crises of all time: the debt ceiling. In an effort to dodge an actual catastrophe, compromises were made to avoid default. The hope at that time was that Congress would finally put politics aside, and work on behalf of the people they represent.
Unfortunately very little has changed, and now the GOP's political games could have dire consequences. If Congress doesn't act soon, America's students will fall victim to massive budget cuts. The very deal that was put in place to help us all make balanced decisions and compromises could instead trigger across-the-board cuts which will reduce education funding to pre-2003 funding levels.
Last week the National Education Association published an analysis that reveals what would happen to education funding if Congress doesn't intervene. The cuts will dramatically cost America's children: nearly all federal education programs would receive reduced funding. Even though America's schools have added 5.4 million students over the last decade, massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy have depleted local school budgets. Education costs for k-12 alone have increased by 25 percent. If these cuts are implemented, funding would fall off a cliff — the blow to public education could be $4.8 billion.
In practical terms, it means fewer services for nine million public school students and job losses for 80,000 Americans. In real terms, it means students sitting on the floor because their classes are too big, four-year-olds cheated out of early childhood education and parents losing their homes because they are out of work.
The analysis also points out that children with special needs — who rely heavily on federal funding to receive the extra care they need — could really suffer. Cuts to special education could be more than one billion dollars.
What does it say about a nation who preserves tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent by cutting funding for special education?
The nasty word for all of this is sequestration. Synonyms include: aloneness, insulation, segregation, isolation. This is exactly where our students will find themselves if Congress doesn't do its job. Students may be too young to understand the word with multiple syllables. But they will definitely feel the impact when they report to classes packed with more students, when they don't have a place to go before or after school, or in the future, when they're struggling to compete in a worldwide economy. At a time when our nation's children and America's working families need more, Congress is set to intentionally give them less.
We are all accountable for student success, and our elected officials have an obligation to ensure that education funding doesn't fall off a cliff. It is up to Congress to find a balanced solution — one that won't leave America's students out in the cold, left to fend for themselves.
Tomorrow the Senate Labor, HHS and Education Appropriations Subcommittee will consider the effects of these cuts, and we hope they'll understand the gravity of the situation. We cannot keep going backward. When we invest in public schools, we are investing in our children and our nation's future.
Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.