Sequestration Creates Fog of Fiscal Uncertainty

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Congress only has five months left to avert the automatic spending cuts scheduled to hit the federal budget in January. That’s when sequestration, the austerity process resulting from last summer’s Budget Control Act, would impose equal caps on discretionary spending in federal defense and other programs. No one knows exactly what sequestration would mean for education specifically, but it is clear that Title I, Title II, and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) would be affected. And two new reports, released by the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), respectively, remind us that the anticipated cuts are large and will affect hundreds of thousands of low-income students.

Under sequestration, the NEA report estimates the total cuts to pre-kindergarten, K-12, and postsecondary education budgets next year will range from $4.5-$4.8 billion. Such a cut would turn back the clock, reducing federal education funding to an amount below what was budgeted a decade ago, when schools enrolled about 5.4 million fewer students. The report anticipates cuts of more than $1 billion to Title I, and millions slashed from School Improvement Grants (SIG) and Title III. Title II funding would sink to the lowest level in the program’s history. On the higher education front, work-study funds would fall to pre-turn-of-the-millennium levels, and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) to below their level in 2001. Some education programs, including those that assist low-income people, like Pell grants, would be exempt from the caps.

The AASA report highlights results from its survey of about 1,000 school administrators — mostly rural superintendents — from 49 states and the District of Columbia. Respondents were asked how their districts are preparing for sequestration. Nearly all (9 in 10) thought neither their state nor their district could absorb or offset the budget cuts. Instead, they anticipated their districts would make budget cuts that directly impact schools. For instance, most expect reductions in professional development, academic programs, and instructional and other staff, as well as increases in class size and delays in technology purchases.

Both organizations stress their projections are not exact. After all, if sequestration occurs, it will affect each jurisdiction differently. But because most states and districts count on federal dollars to fund important educational services, the effects could be widely felt.

Each day Congress fails to choose an alternative to sequestration, the nightmare of large cuts to critical education programs grows more ominous. Local school leaders and their students are relying on Congress to clear the fog of fiscal uncertainty before the start of the next school year.

— Lynn Jennings