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House Passes Bill To Stave Off Cuts, But K-12 Advocates Still Worried

Education advocates have been sweating for months over a series of planned cuts that are slated to hit every K-12 program in January—unless Brokedown Congress can figure out a way to stop it.

Well, today the House of Representatives passed a bill that would stop the cuts—known in Inside-the-Beltway speak as "sequestration"—for a year for all programs, and permanently for defense spending.

But education advocates—and the White House—aren't exactly celebrating. They say the cure is worse than the disease.

In a nutshell, the plan, which was approved on a 218-199 vote today, would stop sequestration for the next federal fiscal year, fiscal year 2013. But it would do so by cutting non-defense spending (that's the category that includes education) even further over the long haul. 

And, even in the first year, the cuts for "non-defense" programs wouldn't really be much smaller under the House plan than they would have been under the much-dreaded sequestration, according to an analysis by the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington.

In fact, non-defense spending would be cut by a total of $27 billion overall, meaning that education would have to fight other programs for a piece of a much smaller pie.

"It's like they're saying 'we're not going to amputate your entire leg, we're just going to cut it off above the knee," said Joel Packer, the executive director of the CEF, and all-around edu-budget smartypants.

After the first year, the outlook becomes even more bleak, CEF found. In fact, in fiscal year 2014, the cuts  for "non-defense" programs would be 19 percent, more than double the amount under sequestration. The cuts for the "sequestration" plan have been estimated at anywhere from 7.8 to 9.1 percent.

What's more, the House legislation includes more immediate cuts that affect programs for children, including the school lunch program, CEF argues.

President Barack Obama has pledged to veto the House legislation (which is unlikely to make it through the Democratically-controlled Senate anyway).  The White House essentially says that by sparing only defense Republican leaders are welching on a deal they made last summer to raise the debt ceiling.

"The bill would break the agreement on discretionary spending made in last summer's budget agreement," the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement. "The bill relies entirely on spending cuts that impose a particular burden on the middle-class and the most vulnerable among us, while doing nothing to raise revenue from the most affluent."

But Republican leaders defended the choices in the bill, saying that Washington can't afford runaway spending and shouldn't increase taxes during a still-shaky recovery.

"The House's action today replaces automatic defense cuts—cuts the Obama administration accurately said were 'devastating' to our military—with sensible spending cuts and reforms that reduce the deficit," said Rep. John Boehner, the speaker of the House. For more on the GOP's take on the legislation, check out this op-ed by Reps. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the former chairman of the House education committee.

Even though it's very unlikely to become law under the current administration, the House bill is still worth close attention, Packer said.

"They have laid out in explicit detail their alternative to the sequester, and this will be their negotiating position," as Congress works to stave off the cuts, which might not be averted until well after the presidential election," he said. The White House laid out its own alternative to sequestration in its budget request. The Senate has yet to agree on a comprehensive plan. 

And all of this is nothing new, Packer added.  "It's the same fight that we've been having since day one of this Congress, which is should revenues be part of the picture [in trimming the deficit] or not? That's what made the two political parties at logger heads."

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