'Fiscal cliff': With cuts of $4 billion looming, educators sound alarm

If the US goes over the fiscal cliff, schools might see larger class sizes, fewer jobs, and less special-education funding, among other things. But not everyone sees a sky-is-falling scenario.

Paul Kieu/The Daily Advertiser/AP
In a Nov. 1 photo, preschool student Raymond Willis works on an arts and crafts project in a class led by teacher Jennifer Tassin at Truman Montessori Preschool in Lafayette, La. Educators are turning up alarm bells they've been sounding since last spring about how students could be harmed if Congress doesn't act to steer away from the 'fiscal cliff.'

Educators are turning up alarm bells they’ve been sounding since last spring about how students could be harmed if Congress doesn’t act to steer away from the “fiscal cliff.”

If lawmakers can’t make a deal, “sequestration” – automatic cuts to the federal budget – would begin to kick in at the beginning of 2013. Education would take a hit of about 8 percent, or at least $4 billion a year, according to various government estimates.

“These cuts to our schools would be devastating and of course would impact student achievement,” said Deborah Rigsby, director of federal legislation for the National School Boards Association (NSBA), in a press call Wednesday. “[They] would result in increased class sizes ... the elimination of after-school and summer-school programs, a narrowing of the curriculum, the closing of school libraries, and more.”

Not everyone sees a sky-is-falling scenario, however. Many schools receive only about 10 percent of their funding from the federal government. Cuts to that could hurt, but they would be just a further indication that there’s “a need for schools to do more with less,” says Michael Petrilli, an education expert and executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington. “If there’s been any doubt that we’re in a new era of constrained resources, people have got to get with the program.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Congress in July that “the sequestration will put at risk all that we've accomplished in education and weaken programs that help children, serve families, [and] send young people and adults to college.”

According to Secretary Duncan, some examples of what the cuts would mean:

  • At least $1.1 billion of Title I funding would be lost, affecting approximately 1.8 million disadvantaged students.
  • Special-education funding would be cut by $900 million.
  • About 100,000 low-income children would not have access to early education through Head Start.

At least 48,000 jobs could be lost because of such cuts, according to an October analysis by House Democrats.

Most of the impact wouldn’t be felt in schools until the beginning of the next school year, since funding for this year has already been distributed. However, because of the way some funding is structured, school districts with high numbers of military children and American Indian students would face cuts immediately in January.

School administrators have been actively lobbying on Capitol Hill for a solution that would preserve education funding.

Because the districts with more low-income children rely more heavily on federal education dollars, the across-the-board sequestration cuts “would make the gap wider between the haves and the have-nots,” says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). 

About 57 percent of districts say they’d have to cut jobs, and 55 to 70 percent would have to increase class sizes, cut academic programs, and trim staff development if dealing with the federal cuts, according to an AASA survey earlier this year.

One administrator from Georgia noted in the AASA survey that at stake is a six-year effort in that person’s district to narrow achievement gaps and bring graduation rates up 35 percent among students who are mostly low-income. “Our students and teachers are beginning to believe we can achieve at a high level; however, my greatest fear is that with these additional funding cuts our supports will disappear,” wrote the administrator, who was not named. “It will take more time and consistent resources to break the generational cycle of poverty and low academic expectations in our community.”

California would take a particularly big hit, said Jill Wynns, president of the California School Boards Association, in the NSBA’s press call Wednesday. In a state where 1 out of 8 US public-school students live, she noted, more than 20 percent of state support has been cut since 2007-08, causing districts to scale back programs for the highest-need students.

“If sequestration occurs, our state will lose $387 million.... So federal cuts ... on top of that will just devastate these programs,” she said.

Ms. Wynns urged people to realize that “this is not abstract” but affects individual children. The budget cuts wouldn’t be saving money, she said, but “disinvesting in our future.”

President Obama made comments earlier this week indicating he would continue to push for a solution that protects investments in education as he negotiates with Republicans in Congress.

“I strongly suspect that education will come out fine,” says Mr. Petrilli of Fordham. Even Republicans “are loath to cut it because they know it’s popular,” he says.

But Mr. Domenech of AASA says assurances that sequestration “is not going to happen” aren’t very comforting until something concrete is announced. If lawmakers simply cobble together a temporary solution – say, averting the cuts for a year – “the issue will still be hanging over everybody’s head,” he says.

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