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Sequestration and education

Remember that big ugly word, sequestration? The automatic cuts for federal government agencies, including the Department of Education, are less than a month away from returning, unless Congress takes action.

Over the next few weeks, you might see heightened media attention to the potential return of sequestration, which is slated to kick back in on October 1. That date also marks the deadline for a new federal budget. So, from an education standpoint, what do you need to know?

Full disclosure: Trying to predict congressional activity is akin to reading tea leaves. I can tell you, however, that there is a good chance Congress will pass a continuing resolution before the end of this month, which would serve as a short-term Band-Aid and keep funding at current levels for a few weeks or months. Otherwise, Republican lawmakers would have to pull off a budget compromise in 10 legislative work days that President Barack Obama would be willing to sign. (You guessed right — that’s not likely.)

But before Congress took its summer recess, Republicans in both the House and Senate moved forward legislation that would impose sequester-level spending cuts on most government sectors, including education. Obama has vowed to veto such proposals.

Education funding could become a bargaining point to secure bipartisan support for new spending legislation, but it’s not yet clear what that could mean.

How did Congress get here again?

Quick primer: A 2011 law known as the Budget Control Act requires the federal government to curb military and domestic spending by $1 trillion over 10 years and tasked a committee with finding another $1.2 trillion to cut. Because lawmakers didn’t reach an agreement by the early 2012 deadline, cuts and limits on spending for the majority of government agencies — or sequestration — started to kick in automatically in 2013, after a short delay.

Photo Credit: Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education
Photo Credit: Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education

The original sequester took effect in March 2013, but in December of that year, lawmakers reached a deal that dulled the blow of the cuts for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. That’s the plan expiring in October. Most Democrats want to undo sequestration altogether, while many Republicans want to cut funding for most departments while exempting some aspects of defense spending.

The 2013 reductions had a clear impact on North Carolina’s public schools; about $63 million in federal money disappeared after the sequester hit, including a loss of more than $25 million in Title I grants to schools with high numbers of low-income students. Some of the state’s less-wealthy districts lost as much as 10 percent of their federal funding.

The early education program known as Head Start was affected as well; several regional programs across North Carolina had to end early or reduce the number of low-income students enrolled.

What would more sequester-level funding cuts look like for education?

This summer, the appropriations committees of the Republican-controlled House and Senate sent plans to each chamber for consideration that noticeably cut education.

The House’s reduction for the Department of Education — $2.8 billion — is a larger cut than the one resulting from the 2013 sequester. (Keep in mind that the department’s budget is currently around $67 billion, but that cut is still significant.) This reduction includes the elimination of 19 federal education initiatives, including ones targeting teachers and school improvement that Republicans deemed duplicative or ineffective. The bill features a small increase in federal support for charter schools and for Head Start.

The Senate’s bill recommends a $1.7 billion cut and the elimination of 10 federal education initiatives, including Preschool Development Grants and a program supporting improved literacy. It slightly increases Title I and charter schools’ funding. The legislation also has a so-called “rider” preventing the federal government from mandating or incentivizing any national curriculum standards, such as the Common Core.

North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction received about $1.4 billion in federal money for education in the 2014-15 school year, said Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation. That number has dropped a fair amount in the past four years; data from the department indicate that the state received more than $2 billion for education in 2010-11, a figure bolstered by the stimulus package. But Stoops noted that federal support is still higher in dollars than before the economic crisis, and the same held true when I accounted for inflation.

Continued sequester-level cuts to education might eventually return the state to pre-recession levels, which were around $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion, he said. (Per-pupil spending has gone down, however, and would continue to fall if such cuts became a reality.)

What could federal funding cuts mean for North Carolina’s public schools?

Federal money — most of which targets low-income students, special-needs students, and school nutrition — makes up anywhere from 10 percent to 15 percent of the overall public education budget here, depending on the year. So school leaders and students would see an impact from any federal cuts, said Louis M. Fabrizio, data, research, and federal policy director for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Another drop in Title I money, for instance, would cause headaches for the high-need schools that receive it, he said.

Stoops noted that per-pupil K-12 spending would likely decline further if sequestration remained in place, which concerns some observers. Still, if the cuts took effect, he thought “they would be noticeable, but not catastrophic.”

More details on the sequester standoff should emerge this month. Lawmakers might delay the final passage of an education budget for a few months, Stoops said, in order to execute a more comprehensive reform package that includes the long-awaited rewrite of No Child Left Behind. Another important factor: Several members of Congress are running for president in 2016, and they likely don’t want to have major education cuts blemishing their records.

The bottom line is that the federal budget landscape could change quickly as the fall begins. Fabrizio said the state’s education officials remain hopeful for a budget that doesn’t make sequester-level cuts. “I think it’s like, we won’t allow ourselves to see that that could happen again,” he said.

Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015 with degrees in journalism and political science, and she is currently based in Washington, D.C. She spent four years reporting on politics and education for The Daily Tar Heel, and she has also written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bloomberg News, and several community newspapers in North Carolina.