What Sequestration Means for Schools

Posted on June 5, 2012

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With financial losses all over the news last week, I, like many of you, spent more time than usual fixated on the market, and wondering about our economy.

And it’s not that I’m overly worried about the future. Call me naive, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to land on our feet when all is said and done. It’s the pain that we might yet experience en route to landing on our feet that worries me. In many of the meetings that I attend in Washington DC—especially education meetings—discussions often circle back to the economy, and how, even if the recovery continues, it might hurt schools.

Of particular concern to many educational leaders is the impending “double whammy” that could potentially hit us as soon as the end of 2012. On March 22, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) warned that the continued gridlock in Washington over the budget (a continuation of debt ceiling problems from last summer) “will likely” lead to the US falling into a recession next year. Add to this the effects of a Bush tax cut expiration, scheduled to occur at around the same time as the congressional budget deadline, and we’re looking at what might be another major hit to our economy—a double whammy, so to speak.

But even if a double whammy isn’t our future, its very potential is already having an adverse effect on education funding. Take, for example, budget protocol now coming out of Texas. A letter prepared by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) explains the following:

The purpose of this letter is to inform Texas local educational agencies (LEAs) of the possibility that all federal grants administered by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) may be reduced for the 2012–2013 school and grant year by an amount ranging from 8–14%.

To prepare for the possibility of sequestration, TEA has elected to reduce planning amounts for federal formula grants and to calculate maximum entitlements later than usual, in January 2013, by which time the issue of funding cuts will be settled at the federal level.

In other words, Texas is cutting funding now, just in case Congress can’t put together a suitable budget plan in the future. Who can blame them? If Congress fails to take action by January 2, 2013, federal education spending will be cut for the 2012–2013 school and grant year by approximately $4.1 billion nationally—with $2 billion to be cut from Title I and IDEA alone.

This is because of the “sequestration” clause written into current budget legislation. If Congress does not manage to write an acceptable budget by Jan. 2, then the federal government will automatically “sequester” more than $100 billion in government funds—automatic cuts to the pentagon and domestic agencies, education among them.

I’d be surprised if many other states didn’t follow Texas’ lead and tighten the funding spigot for the time being. This all highlights how fragile we’ve been made by the last few years. These days, at least in education, we don’t need a crisis, just the threat of a crisis, to drive policy.

And what next? Hopefully, with so much national concern over education, Congress will leave us off of any more automatic cut lists. Only time will tell.

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