Education Won’t Go Over the Fiscal Cliff (At Least for Now)

But in just two months, America’s education budget crisis will again take center stage.

Budget cuts could be devastating to our kids. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

For a brief moment, educators and parents can breathe a sigh of relief.

When Congress approved a bill on Tuesday to ward off the “fiscal cliff,” mammoth cuts to K-12 and higher education were averted. Without that legislation, trigger cuts would have immediately occurred across nearly every government agency, including the Department of Education. That meant about $4.8 billion would have automatically been reduced in education spending, including programs like Head Start.

If Congress had failed to sign Tuesday night's bill, the fallout would have been devastating. The National Education Association estimated that the automatic cuts could have affected more than nine million students and cut 78,400 education jobs in its first year.

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

According to an NEA report, the budget cuts would have pushed spending back to 2003 levels, although costs have increased by 23 percent in the last 10 years. It would have also slashed Title I grants for school districts.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement that the legislation was far from ideal, but it createshistoric first steps in balancing the scales of revenue generation between the rich and middle class.”

He added, “Across-the-board cuts will mean fewer educators in our schools, students crammed into already overcrowded classrooms, shorter school weeks, 4-year-olds cheated out of early childhood education, and dreams dashed for aspiring college students.”

Higher education would have also been greatly impacted by cuts.

Instead, the Congressional deal, which President Barack Obama signed on Wednesday, extends the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a partially refundable $2,500 tax credit for college tuition that Obama introduced in the 2009 stimulus bill to keep college affordable. A tax deduction also allows students to deduct up to $4,000 in tuition expenses through 2013.

The bill also spared a federal work-study program and nixed an 8 percent funding cut for scientific research at the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Agency, the Environment Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey.

While Pell Grants are protected by the federal government, the maximum amount allowed per grant could be cut by $400 if a budget deal is not reached by March 1. Obama has been a strong defender of Pell Grants. Obama increased Pell Grants in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, raising the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,635 for the 2013-14 award year—a $905 increase since 2008, according to the White House website.

For all the hoopla surrounding the fiscal cliff, Congress will have to again address major budget cuts in just two months.

Currently, the federal government is operating on a continuing resolution, or a temporary budget, which expires at the end of March. Lawmakers have yet to figure out a final budget for fiscal year 2013 that started last Oct. 1. Without a budget, a government shutdown looms, and more education cuts are a possibility.

The American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten calls the fiscal cliff deal a "Band-aid solution." She said in a statement:

Kicking the can down the road for two months means that we still face the possibility of staggering and debilitating cuts to public schools, healthcare and services that our kids and families count on. Failure to avert these across-the-board cuts will cripple public services in communities across the nation, many of which are already barely recovering from the recent recession and state and local budget cuts...

After Congress passed the bill on Tuesday night, Obama said in a White House press conference, “We can't keep cutting things like basic research and new technology and still expect to succeed in a 21st century economy. So we're going to have to continue to move forward in deficit reduction, but we have to do it in a balanced way, making sure that we are growing even as we get a handle on our spending.”

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