It is not clear whether — but increasingly unlikely — that President Obama and Congress will come to a budget deal before the end of the year to avert automatic budget cuts, including in education. Here Anne O’Brien, deputy director of the Learning First Alliance, explains what would happen to school districts if the country goes over what is being called “the fiscal cliff.” The Learning First Alliance is a partnership of 16 education associations with more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America’s public schools.

By Anne O’Brien

 In the event Congress takes no action before the end of the year to avert going over the “fiscal cliff” in January, there will be automatic 8.2% budget cuts to all federal discretionary spending programs – including education programs like Title I (which targets money to low-income students), IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which sends money to special education students), Title II (which provides money to improve teacher quality) and the Rural Education Achievement Program (which helps small, rural school districts).

According to a July survey by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), school administrators are planning for these budget cuts in a variety of ways, including reducing professional development, increasing class size, reducing academic programs (enrichment, after-school, interventions and so on), deferring technology purchases, laying off staff (both non-instructional and instructional), cutting bus transportation and more.

These cuts would be devastating to schools and students. But they would not be shared equally. New data from AASA shows that sequestration would disproportionately impact disadvantaged youth.

The first students to feel the impact of sequestration would be those in districts that receive Impact Aid. While most of the budget cuts enacted in “sequestration” would not be felt in K-12 education until the 2013-14 school year, Impact Aid would see cuts immediately. Schools receive this aid when federally owned property within their district does not generate property taxes – for example, Federal Indian Trust land and military bases.

But even when the cuts hit all districts, they would not be felt equally. Sequestration only cuts federal funding. AASA’s data shows that in the 2010-11 school year, federal dollars made up, on average, 12.3% of schools’ revenue. The rest came from state and local funds. However, 12.3% is not universal.  There are districts where federal revenue represents less than 5% of the operating budget and districts where it represents more than 20% of the operating budget. In some districts, federal funding provides more than 50% of the operating budget. So while the percentage of federal funding to be cut is 8.2% across-the-board, 8.2% of five percent of the budget will have much less of an impact on operations than an 8.2% cut to 20 or 50 percent of the budget. 

Which districts rely most heavily on federal funding? Poor ones. Schools in poorer communities tend to receive more of their funding from the federal government than those in wealthier communities for a variety of reasons, including that poorer communities receive more funding from federal education programs like Title I and that they tend to lack the capacity to raise additional funds locally.

And unfortunately, students in poorer communities are also more likely to suffer from sequestration’s cuts to other federal programs that they are more likely to utilize than their wealthier peers, including those in public health, public safety, and housing and social services.

We as a nation claim to value equal opportunity for all. But cutting funding for programs in ways that further disadvantage our already less fortunate youth, as sequestration would, seems to fly in the face of that value. We cannot let our politicians get away with it.