Funding Survival Toolkit | May 2013 Digital Edition

3 Totally Bogus Fiscal Cliff Myths You Only Think Are True

How will sequestration really affect education? Not in the ways you might think.

school house on a scary cliff

This article, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's May 2013 digital edition.

Are you suffering from Fiscal Cliff fatigue yet? And, even if you are, do you really understand its implications for education? There are many myths circulating about the dire consequences in store, so if you're anything like me, you want to know the truth.

Let's begin with a definition of budget sequestration. In the face of annual budget deficits, sequestration means automatic, across-the-board spending cuts to all federal agencies. This drastic step allows Congress to limit the size of the budget and gives it the right to make mandatory cuts if the cost of running the government exceeds the cap.

On March 1, we all watched as Congress was unable to come to an agreement on how to reduce the $16.5 trillion national debt. This triggered the mandatory sequestration procedures: 5 percent across-the-board cuts to federal programs and activities except for those that Congress identified as exempt (for example, Social Security and certain parts of the defense budget). Education will be cut by $2.5 billion in fiscal year 2013, and the cuts are scheduled to continue through 2021.

Based on what we know now, here are some of the myths--and corresponding truths--about how education will be impacted by sequestration.

MYTH No. 1: No cuts will take place in education until the 2013-2014 school year.

TRUTH: Actually, some cuts have already taken effect. The first districts hit are those receiving Impact Aid, which are districts that receive federal aid to make up for the shortage in property taxes due to the fact that they are located on or near Native American reservations or military bases.

Head Start programs have already had to slash 5 percent from their budgets, totaling about $401 million. Some programs are shutting down earlier in the day. Some may have to shut down for the summer, posing a big problem for poor, working parents.

MYTH No. 2: The only cuts impacting education are the $3 billion in cuts to programs funded by the Department of Education.

TRUTH: Many other agencies provide funding to education. One example is the money rural schools get from the US Forest Service, $15.6 million of which comes from the Secure Rural Schools Act, which provides funds for 4,400 schools located near national forests. The US Department of Agriculture distributed $323 million to 41 states in January. Now they must return $17.9 million under the sequestration requirements or it will be cut from future allotments. Many rural schools have come to depend on these funds for their operations.
MYTH No. 3: All programs will be cut so much that we will have no money for products, including technology.

TRUTH: Here are some of the predicted cuts, as reported by the Committee for Education Funding:

Title I: Sequestration will reduce the $14.7 billion program by nearly $727 million, potentially eliminating support to an estimated 2,700 schools serving 1.2 million disadvantaged students, while also putting at risk the jobs of approximately 10,000 teachers and aides serving these students.

IDEA (Special Education): This program will be cut by nearly $620 million. States and districts will have to cover the cost of approximately 7,200 teachers, aides, and other staff needed to implement a program that serves roughly 6.5 million special needs students.

Additionally, the National Education Association reported additional cuts:

Teacher Quality grants to states will be cut by $124 million, which could result in as many as 1,630 layoffs. It also could mean that as many as 2,630 teachers who were hired to reduce class size will be "unhired." Some 95 percent of districts receive Teacher Quality funds.

Career and Technical Education will be cut by $87 million. CTE, also known as Perkins Career and Technical Education Basic State Grants, provides knowledge and skills to students to prepare them for careers. The cuts will impact 1.4 million students.

21st Century Community Learning Centers will be cut by nearly $59 million. That means that 86,000 students will not have access to before- or after-school programs. It also could mean that 1,200 teachers and nonteaching staff could lose their jobs.

Putting It Into Perspective
So what's the bottom line? It is true that there will be cuts to many of the programs that you use to purchase technology, but remember: The federal funds your district receives comprise at most 10 percent of your total operating budget. The majority of funding comes from state and local sources. So let's do some math: If you take the 10 percent of your budget provided by the federal government (the funds most impacted by sequestration), and divide that 10 percent by 5 percent, the equation would be 0.1 × 0.05 = 0.005 or 0.5 percent. For most districts, that is the maximum amount by which the budget will be reduced.

It will hurt for sure, but if you look at the big picture, it is a very small part of your operating budget. And it could have been much worse if the cuts were the 9 percent originally proposed by Congress.

Speaking of which, as of this writing Congress has not finished executing the details of sequestration. Many bills are being proposed to exempt different programs from the cuts, and meetings are taking place to negotiate alternative ways to reduce the national debt. So stay tuned.