New Budget Cuts Force Extreme Solutions—How Far Will Lawmakers Go?

Education budget cuts are about to get more severe.

Budget cuts will impact children throughout the country—and not in a good way. (Photo: Denver Post via Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Many people didn’t believe across-the-board budget cuts would actually happen. But now that the sequestration has taken place, the harsh impact—pink slips and program elimination—is unfolding in schools across the country.

On top of that, Congress is in the middle of budget negotiatons, and the education cuts could become deeper and murkier.

The House of Representatives passed its budget last week, while the Senate's went through in the early hours of Saturday, March 23, after 13 hours of voting. Both budgets must be reconciled when the House and Senate return after a two-week break. Education is likely to be at the forefront of the battle.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who was Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick, has long been the architect of the GOP’s budget plan. On March 21, Ryan’s ten-year budget plan to reduce the deficit barely passed the House of Representatives with a 221-207 vote, primarily down party lines. The Senate rejected his plan, but that doesn’t mean elements of it won’t return again.

The Senate passed its budget, the first in four years, with a 50-49 vote. Four conservative Democrats—Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas—voted with the Republicans. All four are in tough reelection battles headed into 2014.

To add to the mix, President Barack Obama plans to unveil his own budget vision in April. Education will certainly be a key part of Obama’s budget as he tries to cement his legacy as an education president.

On Tuesday, March 26, with Congress in recess, Obama signed into law a government-funding bill that ends the 2013 budget fight and locks in $85 billion in budget cuts. Obama has not shied away from voicing his opposition to these cuts.

None of this is fantastic news for education or either political party.

For Ryan, education cuts have long been a key focus. His plan included not renewing the current interest rate of loans for low-income college students, and cutting Pell Grant funding and research in higher education institutes. Ryan’s plan focused heavily on returning funding and power back to the states.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party leader, also has a budget, which failed to pass the Senate this time but has deep support among Libertarian supporters. His plan would eliminate the Department of Education, which manages federal student loan programs, funding for low-income schools, and programs assisting special needs and minority students.

Many conservatives in the House of Representatives, who want to see the Department of Education abolished, actually voted against Ryan’s budget. Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican, said that by shutting down the department, the taxpayers would save $70 billion a year.

“Constitutionally speaking, the federal government should not have a role in K-12 public education anyway,” Broun, who is running for an open Georgia Senate seat, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “Overpaid Washington bureaucrats shouldn’t be deciding how to provide for teachers and students, whose own state and local governments are better equipped to understand their needs.”

While the Department is not likely to go away any time soon, that doesn't mean the push to chisel away at federal education funding won't continue.

When Congress returns from its two-week break, the House and Senate budgets will have to be reconciled. Both are drastically different, such as the cuts to Pell Grants.

The Committee for Education Funding praised the Senate budget because it increases the Pell Grant award and fully funds future shortfalls. The Republican-controlled House is unlikely to support this measure and other education safety nets in the budget. The end result is likely more contention, and a lot more education cuts.

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