School leaders brace for cuts as sequestration occurs

While all schools that receive federal funding will be affected, poor and disadvantaged students will be hit hardest.

School districts around the country are bracing for more than $2 billion in federal spending cuts that kicked in March 1 after lawmakers failed to reach a deficit-reduction deal.

School administrators say the cuts will result in fewer staff, larger class sizes, and the delay of ed-tech purchases, among other effects. The cuts come as school districts are trying to prepare for more rigorous assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and district leaders say the cuts will hinder these efforts.

While all schools that receive federal funding will be affected, poor and disadvantaged students will be hit hardest. The so-called sequestration cuts federal Title I spending on low-income students by $725 million, affecting 1.2 million students—which could put the jobs of about 10,000 teachers and aides at risk, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Other cuts include $600 million from Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funding, requiring states and districts to cover the cost of about 7,200 special-education teachers, aides, and other staff. What’s more, some 70,000 Head Start students could be eliminated from the pre-kindergarten program.

“Doing that to our most vulnerable students is economically foolish and morally indefensible,” Duncan said last month in testimony before the Senate.

The Education Department is also warning that the cuts will affect up to 29 million student loan borrowers and that some lenders might have to lay off staff or even close. Some of the 15 million college students who receive grants or work-study assignments at about 6,000 colleges also could see changes.

President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans on March 2 refused to concede any culpability for failing to stave off what both parties acknowledged was a foolhardy way to slash a total of $85 billion in federal spending.

The still-fragile economy is bracing itself for the gradual but potentially grave impact of the across-the-board cuts, which took effect on the night of March 1 at the stroke of Obama’s pen. Hours earlier, he and congressional leaders emerged from a White House meeting no closer to an agreement.

Even as they pledged a renewed effort to undo the spending cuts retroactively, both parties said the blame rests squarely on the other for any damage the cuts might inflict. There were no indications that either side was wavering from entrenched positions that for weeks had prevented progress on a deal to find a way out: Republicans refusing any deal with more tax revenue—and Democrats snubbing any deal without it.

“None of this is necessary,” Obama said in his weekly radio and internet address March 2. “It’s happening because Republicans in Congress chose this outcome over closing a single wasteful tax loophole that helps reduce the deficit.”

The president said the cuts would cause “a ripple effect across the economy” that would worsen the longer they stay in place, eventually costing more than 750,000 jobs and disrupting the lives of middle-class families.

In the Republican-controlled House, GOP lawmakers washed their hands of the mess, arguing that bills they passed in the last Congress to avert the cuts absolved them of any responsibility. Those bills passed with little to no Democratic support because they did not include any revenue increases, and they were never taken up by the Senate.

(Next page: A closer look at the cuts’ impact—including results from a national survey of superintendents)

Obama was holding out hope that as Americans start feeling the effects of the sequester—the term used for the automatic spending cuts—public pressure will force lawmakers back to the table. Wary that such fiscal fiascos could jeopardize the rest of his second-term agenda, Obama vowed in his weekly address to keep pushing reforms on immigration, preschool education, gun violence, and transportation.

But attention already was turning to the next major budget hurdles, with less than a month to negotiate a plan to fund the government beyond March 27 and a debt-ceiling clash coming in May.

Hopes that a measure to undo the spending cuts could be wrapped into a March deal to keep the government running dimmed March 1 when both Obama and House Speaker John Boehner said they’d prefer to keep the two issues separate.

“I’m hopeful that we won’t have to deal with the threat of a government shutdown while we’re dealing with the sequester at the same time,” Boehner said.

Reaction to lawmakers’ failure to reach a deal to avert deep cuts to education spending was swift and severe.

“Education now faces the largest cuts in history, and our nation’s families and schools are confronting the fact that curriculum supports and vital school and community programming for our highest-need students will decrease,” said National PTA President Betsy Landers in a statement. “Every single one of National PTA’s nearly 5 million members will suffer the consequences of this avoidable situation.”

In a report released Feb. 26 by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), U.S. school superintendents described what the cuts would look like in their districts. Nearly 400 respondents from 42 states paint a dreary picture.

“The blind cuts of sequestration, made regardless of program demand or effectiveness, represent poor, short-sighted policy,” said AASA executive director Daniel Domenech. “The cuts … will affect millions of students, classrooms, and teachers by increasing class sizes, reducing programs, and eliminating educator jobs.”

Among the report’s key findings:

• More than three quarters of respondents (78 percent) said their district would have to eliminate jobs as a result of the sequester. On average, school districts will have to eliminate between 3.7 and 4.8 instructional positions.

• The cuts will affect areas that most directly impact student learning, including the reduction of academic programs and professional development, personnel layoffs, increased class sizes, and the deferring of technology purchases.

• For the first time in the four years and 14 surveys AASA has administered to learn the impact of the recession on the nation’s schools, there was a significant increase in the percentage of respondents indicating that special education funding will take a hit.

“At a time where society demands more from schools and student learning,” commented one respondent from Wyoming, “this action would put all schools in direct sight for those that already discount schools and their efforts. We have a great opportunity to make the changes for improved student learning and … now we could face a huge stoppage of effort.”

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