Fiscal Cliff: Education Budget Cuts Could Be Devastating to Our Kids

If across-the-board-budget cuts happen, Obama's education platform will be significantly affected.

Education will be hit hard if across-the-board budget cuts take place. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Sequestration looms in Washington as Congress faces a possible fiscal cliff.

Education funding will be one of the hardest hit areas if Washington doesn’t pass a federal budget by January. Without a federal budget, mandatory cuts will occur, which means about $4.8 billion will automatically be reduced in education spending. This includes higher learning and special education.

This issue, along with other budgetary restraints, is making President Obama’s education platform for the next four years a little shaky.

More: Obama’s Education Hits and Misses

Obama campaigned heavily during his reelection for sweeping education reforms, including channeling energy into ensuring our college graduation rates will be the highest in the world by 2020. Despite his push for reform, he did not outline a concrete education plan during his campaign for the next four years. Instead, he often referenced his already-in-place Race to the Top program. Perhaps this had a lot to do with the pending sequestration.

“Sequestration short-changes students, especially students from low-income families and students with special needs," National Education Association Director of Government Relations, Mary Kusler, said in a statement. "Congress has an obligation to ensure that education funding doesn’t fall off a cliff. It’s up to Congress to find a balanced solution—one that doesn’t leave America’s students out in the cold, left to fend for themselves.”

Education was a key issue for many voting blocks, including Latinos and millennials, earlier this month. But in Washington, it appears much of what Obama succeeded in doing during his first term could be undone in his second.

While Obama restructured student loans, the interest rates, which were capped at 3.4 percent, are set to double on July 1. That’s because of a stopgap measure passed by Congress last year. Pell Grants, which Obama increased, may also face cuts in 2013.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is likely to remain in Obama's cabinet for a second term, addressed the perils of sequestration as early as last July, when he testified in front of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

“While it is absolutely our hope and intention to avoid sequestration, the Department of Education, along with all other agencies, will be ready to implement cuts if sequestration happens,” Duncan said. “But we all know that there are steps we can take so we don’t have to start down this path that puts so many critical services to students, families and communities at risk. As everyone knows, sequestration does not have to happen and should not happen.”

The NEA estimates that sequestration could affect more than nine million students and cut 78,400 education jobs in its first year. According to an NEA report, the budget cuts would push spending back to 2003 levels, although costs have increased by 23 percent in the last 10 years.

The American Association of School Administrators released a survey in July outlining the possible devastation of sequestration. Many of those surveyed blamed the Obama Administration and Congress for not telling schools about the possible impacts. In fact, on the U.S. Department of Education's website very little is available about sequestration, and one July 2012 memo tells administrators not to worry about the 2012 school year. Instead it states that cuts would occur in the 2013-14 school year and that “the damage from across-the-board cuts in that year would be severe.”

The education sector has 91 active organizations lobbying in Washington against sequestration. Their work may pay off, and if so, what faces Obama? More battles between the White House and Congress.

Congress is more than five years overdue in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which involves the Bush-era No Child Left Behind. The Obama Administration issued waivers to schools to opt out of No Child Left Behind after Congress missed a 2011 deadline to pass a revised bill that includes Obama’s blueprint for reauthorization. So far, more than 30 states have asked for waivers.

Meanwhile, Obama’s 2009 replacement program, Race to the Top, has shrunk drastically as stimulus funds have been exhausted.

Obama may also face another battle with Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As a former U.S. education secretary, Alexander has plenty of ideas on education, many which drastically differ from Obama’s.

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