Funding Survival Guide | Viewpoint

Sequestration: A Mighty Sword

Inaction by Congress and the impending sequestration could have a devastating impact on educational technology funding.

This article and an accompanying podcast originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's September 2012 digital edition.

Sequestration is one of the most-talked-about topics in education right now. It involves Congress, the federal government, funding, and schools--and it has the potential to be a volatile campaign issue in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections. The mere mention of the word strikes fear in school administrators who know what sequestration means and the damage it could wreak.

So what is sequestration?

A year ago the US Congress passed the bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011 that raised the debt ceiling for the country. One outcome of the act was the formation of a 12-member bipartisan group of legislators was tasked with identifying at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions over the next 10 years. If they cannot reach an agreement by the end of this year, an automatic holdback of all discretionary funding for domestic programs will take place. This holding back of funds is called sequestration and will take effect in January unless Congress takes action before then.

It is estimated that, if Congress does nothing to stop sequestration, federal education programs will be cut between 7.8 percent and 9.1 percent for fiscal year 2013. According to the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of nonprofits that lobbies for federal funding of education, this would mean a reduction of $3.5 billion to $4.1 billion for the US Department of Education and a possible $725 million reduction in Head Start funding.

This would be the biggest cut to education in recent history, affecting more than 7 million students and potentially leading to significant job losses for educators and other school employees. The National Education Association predicts that as many as 75,000 jobs could be lost.

Other estimates for program cuts are:

  • Title I funding for disadvantaged students: $1.3 billion
  • Special education funding: $1.2 billion
  • Teacher quality state grants: $225 million
  • School improvement grants: $49 million

Differing Opinions
There is very little likelihood that Congress will come to agreement before the November election, leaving the post-election lame duck session between November and January as the last chance to come up with a plan to prevent sequestration. In preparation, Congress has requested an economic impact statement from the Office of Management and Budget.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Appropriations' Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, warned that many of the education advances that have been made in recent years will be set back significantly if sequestration takes place. Among other important programs, Race to the Top would be affected and continuation funds could be curtailed. Some political observers also worry that last-minute congressional negotiations would lead to defense spending being spared and education taking even deeper cuts.

Duncan said, "If we don't work together to solve this problem, it further erodes what little faith remains in our elected leadership to put partisan politics aside and do the right thing for children and families."

Others aren't as worried by the dire predictions, pointing out that federal spending accounts for only about 10 percent of school funding and that an across-the-board cut would result in less than a 1-percent drop in US school funding on average.

However, reductions will vary from state to state depending on demographics and will be felt most strikingly in states with populations that are the most dependent on federal dollars. This means that high-poverty students, Native Americans, special needs students, and children of military families will be hardest hit. Programs suffering the biggest cuts would likely be Title I, professional development, career and technical education, special education, and Impact Aid.

Educator Concerns
If sequestration occurs, the effective date would be Jan. 2, 2013, but the cuts won't be seen in schools until July, affecting the next fiscal year, which for most districts runs from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014. Still, education leaders are worried now; one survey conducted by the American Association of School Administrators this year revealed that 54 percent of administrators are planning their 2012-2013 budgets with worst-case scenarios in mind. The AASA study, titled "Cut Deep: How the Sequester Will Impact Our Nation's Schools," surveyed 1,060 school administrators from 49 states and the District of Columbia.

Though states will have flexibility about how to deal with the reductions, the AASA survey by indicates that 90 percent of district officials do not believe they will not have a way to compensate for the cuts caused by sequestration. Further, these reductions would come on the heels of recent cuts in state budgets, putting an even greater burden on already-stressed school finances and frazzled decision-makers.

Education cuts have become a partisan topic and will definitely continue to be a campaign issue.

What Can You Do?
Each of you has a responsibility to get up to speed on the key issues of sequestration. Professionally, this will impact the education world, but remember, this will cut every federal program in similar ways, affecting other parts of your life as well. As it stands now, all federal programs will be cut by the same percentages.

Most of you are now hearing the election rhetoric at the national, state, and local levels. Are the candidates talking about sequestration and specifically its potential impact on education? What do your candidates for US senator and representative say about the topic? If they aren't addressing it, they should be.

What does your local press say about sequestration? You might help influence coverage of the topic. Consider taking the budget you hope to access for technology this year and reduce it by the minimal reduction, 7.8 percent, and the maximum, 9.8 percent. Describe what your technology program and 21st century classrooms would look like in the face of these reductions.

Blog the results. Write an op-ed piece to submit to the press. The best way to combat this possibility is to make yourself heard. Encourage your peers to do the same. Inform your parents what the potential impact could be at your schools.

Sequestration is a bipartisan issue. Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle must address this issue and each of us must make sure we have let our representatives know our position on sequestration. Encourage them to find other ways to deal with our growing debt that would not be as precipitous as the proposed funding cliff the country would fall off on Jan. 2. Become an active legislative advocate for your schools, for education, and for our students who will become the workforce of this millennium.

About the Author

Jenny House is principal of Red Rock Reports, which offers the K-12 technology and services community information on funding and funding trends.