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Arne Duncan: There's Time to Avoid a Government Shutdown, But We're Preparing Anyway

Bad, but not surprising, news for education advocates: It's looking more and more likely that a government shutdown could be in the offing.

Why? Well, in a nutshell, Congress is poised to once again fail to pass its spending bills on time (meaning by the end of the current fiscal year, fiscal 2013, which wraps up on September 30). Typically, lawmakers pass a giant extension measure (Continuing Resolution, or CR in Beltway-speak) to give themselves more time to work out a deal.

This year, however, some conservatives in the House want to use the extension measure as an opportunity to defund the president's landmark health-care plan, which is about to hit a critical implementation phase. They have planned to attach language to the current CR, which is likely to come to the floor of the House this week.

Of course, there's no way the Democratically controlled Senate is going to approve a bill defunding the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's biggest domestic achievement. So we're likely to hit a stalemate.

What does that mean for the U.S. Department of Education? Great question. For now, no one is really giving any specifics. Here's what Cameron French, a spokesman for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had to say in response to my queries on a potential shutdown:

"The administration strongly believes that a lapse in appropriations should not occur. There is enough time for Congress to prevent a lapse in appropriations, and the administration is willing to work with Congress to enact a short-term continuing resolution to fund critical government operations and allow Congress the time to complete the full year 2014 appropriations. However, at this time, prudent management requires that the government plan for the possibility of a lapse and OMB is working with agencies to take appropriate action. This includes agencies reviewing relevant legal requirements and updating their plans for executing an orderly shutdown, as outlined in the guidance OMB issued today. This planning is consistent with what was done in previous instances where a potential lapse in appropriations was approaching. It is our hope that this work will ultimately be unnecessary and that there will be no lapse in appropriations."

Just in case, however, check out this story I did back in March of 2011, when there was yet another possibility of a shut-down. At the time, the department and education advocates indicated that there would not be a disruption to funding for special education and Title I grants to districts, since states typically draw down the bulk of their money in July. However, it's easy to imagine that—if the government shuts down—there would be way fewer employees around to answer states' questions on waiver implementation, for example.

Do edu-advocates expect an actual, real-deal shutdown? Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, is betting against it, just because the optics are so bad politically, for both sides. Instead, he's banking on a series of very short-term stop-gap measures...and budget fights for months and years to come.

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