The word “sequestration” is back, and it’s not good news for public schools.
Last December, Washington lawmakers finally negotiated to avoid the fiscal cliff that was to go into effect on January 2. Part of the negotiation package included delaying sequestration (across-the-board budget cuts) until March 1. And this time it seems neither party is in the mood for dealmaking.
Now that March 1 is looming, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is worried. Earlier this month, he testified at the Senate Appropriations Committee about the impact of the sequestration and budget cuts in education.
“Education is the last place to be reducing our investment as the nation continues to climb out of the recent recession and to prepare all of its citizens to meet the challenges created by global economic competitiveness in the 21st century,” he told the committee.
On Thursday, Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, told reporters at a breakfast in Washington that some school districts are already giving teachers notices about potential job losses. Firing teachers is just one way districts may try to save money. After-school programs may also be slashed along with limiting daycare and even shortening the school day or school year.
Funding for Impact Aid, which districts receive particularly if they have a large concentration of military kids or children living on Indian lands, would be immediately cut if sequestration takes effect. Duncan estimates that the cost would be about $60 million and would impact teachers’ jobs and students’ basic needs.
The early childhood education program Head Start would also be affected. President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address earlier this month that the United States needs to invest more in early education. Budget cuts in education (via sequestration) would likely stop his plan dead in its tracks, and it would additionally cut 200,000 children from Head Start.
Poor and disabled students would be most impacted by budget cuts in education. According to Duncan’s testimony, Title I Grants help 23 million students in high-poverty schools. Special Education State Grants provide “a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to roughly 6.5 million special needs students.”
What does that mean exactly? About 1.2 million disadvantaged students would be affected in 2,700 schools because of the loss of $725 million in Title I funding. About 10,000 teachers and their aides would be at risk of losing their jobs. Funds dispersed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act could see cuts of $598 million affecting 7, 200 teachers. The burden to provide for these students would fall on states and districts, which have not rebounded from the recent recession.
Villanova School of Business economist David Fiorenza says federal funding can deeply impact a district.
“A wealthy school district is less dependent on federal funds than a poorer district,” he told TakePart. “Wealthy districts rely more on their tax base of real estate taxes and wage taxes. School districts, in general, do not enjoy the variety of tax sources municipal government does so school districts see the effects quicker and will look towards real estate tax increases and/or wage tax increases to lessen the blow if a funding cut occurs at the federal level.”
Conservative critics argue that the public school system already has too many employees and too much federal funding goes to unnecessary programs. They say states need to pony up with more money if they want more programs.
But Duncan was blunt on Thursday, saying that some leaders in Washington live in a vacuum and lack leadership.
“The (school) day is too short,” he said. “The year’s too short. We don’t have enough after-school. And now to say, ‘OK, because we can’t sit at a table and compromise and find some middle ground, we’re just going to let a bunch of kids start to suffer and a bunch of teachers start to get pink slips?’ How’s that rational? How’s that leadership? Is that why you ran for office and got elected and did all these things? Do you feel proud about that? I don’t get it.”