What the ‘fiscal cliff’ means for public schools


(Dean Treml-AFP/Getty Images)

Here are some facts about how public schools across the country could be affected if President Obama and Congress don’t reach some agreement on solving the nation’s debt problem by Jan. 1 and the country goes over “the fiscal cliff” and “sequestration” takes effect.

What, exactly, does that mean? It means that in the absence of a timely compromise, automatic federal budget cuts totaling $1.2 trillion will start on Jan. 2, 2013, and end seven years later. The cuts will be divided evenly between defense spending (not including wars U.S. troops are fighting) and discretionary domestic spending, not including entitlements like Social Security and Medicaid, but affecting the Department of Education and other agencies. (If you want to know why this is happening, read this.)

Education programs now collectively make up less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Here are some things to know about how sequestration could affect public schools: 

 * Federal cuts to education could amount to nearly $5 billion, according to an analysis by the American Association of School Administrators, which would cause class sizes to be increased, programs reduced, services eliminated and jobs lost.That’s an 8.2 percent cut, according to the National School Boards Association. ( Pages 60-64 of this Office of Management and Budget report details sequestration as it relates to the U.S. Education Department.)
 
Remember that many public school districts have already been dealing with cuts in local and state resources for several years. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, elementary and high schools are receiving less state funding in the current school year than they did last year in 26 states — and in 35 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels.
 
* An analysis by the National Education Association says that education funding would drop to pre-2003 levels — even though 5.4 million more students have enrolled in public schools and K-12 education costs have increased 25 percent.
 
* Some schools and some of the country’s neediest children would be affected immediately, meaning Jan. 2, 2013.They are in the Impact Aid program, which helps about 1,200 school districts, most of which have a good number of Native American students as well as children of parents who work on military bases. (The program helps districts located on federal government land or lands that were removed from local tax rolls by the U.S. government, such as Indian lands, which don’t have the same local revenue as other school districts.)

 * Federal programs including Head Start and Title 1 — which provides aid to schools and districts with high percentages of children from disadvantaged families — will be affected immediately. Other programs are exempt from sequestration, such as federal Pell grants, which provide need-based funds to low-income families to pay college tuition, and child nutrition programs, including school lunch, school breakfast, child and adult care food and others. You can see other programs exempted from sequestration in this Congressional Research Service report.

 * Most schools will really start to feel the cuts in 2013-14.

 * More than 200 school districts have passed resolutions urging Congress to spare education programs. The National PTA has been also pushing its members to lobby their elected officials to reach a deal and avoid sequestration.
Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · November 15, 2012