Eleventh-hour budget deal cuts $13B from health, education, labor

Though a federal government shutdown would have been more of an inconvenience than a disaster for education, some schools and students would have been affected.

A last minute budget deal for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, forged amid bluster and tough bargaining, averted an embarrassing government shutdown and cut billions of dollars in federal spending, including $13 billion from the health, education, and labor budget—the first major test of the divided government voters ushered in five months ago.

Working late into the evening April 8, congressional and White House negotiators struck an agreement to pay for government operations through the end of September while cutting $38.5 billion in federal spending overall. Lawmakers then approved a days-long stopgap measure to keep the government running while the details of the new spending plan were written into legislation.

Actual approval of the deal is expected to come later this week.

As of press time, details about the final budget deal were still sketchy. But among the compromises struck in the deal, Republicans backed off on their plans to cut nearly 25 percent from the budget of the Head Start program, which provides a range of services for early childhood care and education. The National Head Start Association estimated the proposed cuts would have resulted in more than 200,000 children losing services and more than 50,000 Head Start employees losing their jobs.

Democrats, in turn, agreed to fund a federal voucher program for students in the District of Columbia Public Schools, a program that Republicans had pushed for.

“Today, Americans of different beliefs came together again,” President Barack Obama said from the White House Blue Room, a setting chosen to offer a clear view of the Washington Monument over his right shoulder.

The agreement—negotiated by the new Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, the president, and the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid—came as the administration was poised to shutter federal services, from national parks to tax-season help centers, and to send furlough notices to hundreds of thousands of federal workers. It was a prospect that all sides insisted they wanted to avoid but that at times seemed all but inevitable.

A government shutdown would have been an inconvenience, but not a huge disaster, for K-12 schools—although college students might have fared worse.

Most K-12 programs are forward-funded, said Noelle Ellerson, assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators, meaning that FY11 dollars aren’t yet flowing in districts, so they wouldn’t have seen a funding interruption.

“One K-12 program that would [have been] impacted is Impact Aid,” she said, because that program is not forward-funded. Other major education programs that would have felt a pinch are work-study and Perkins loans for low-income college students, she added.

Even though most K-12 programs might not have been directly affected by a government shutdown, such a prospect still would have made it difficult for schools to plan their budgets for the 2011-12 school year, because of the uncertainty in federal funding, Ellerson said. And schools on American Indian reservations might have felt the effects of a shutdown quicker, because the federal government plays a critical role in most day-to-day operations on reservations.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.