Sequestration Nation: Back To School With Budget Cuts

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"Sequestration Nation: Back To School With Budget Cuts"

Students classroom

CREDIT: AP

As children begin to head back to school for the 2013-2014 school year, many could find larger class sizes, less staff, and fewer upgrades to things like computers or textbooks when they arrive. That’s because the coming school year will be the first in which sequestration will make itself felt in all of the public school districts across the country.

The first schools to feel the impact were those on or near military bases and Native American reservations who receive Impact Aid to make up for lower tax revenues. Head Start programs also had to start reducing the number of slots available to low-income preschoolers. But now cuts to all federal funding for education, including money that goes to special education, programs for English language learners, low-income students, teachers’ professional development, and many others will start to hit. “Literally every program that runs through the Department of Education is being cut by 5 percent,” Mark Egan, associate director for government relations with the National Education Association, told ThinkProgress. In February, the White House estimated that Title I funding that goes to schools with large populations of low-income students would be eliminated for more than 2,700 and cut off support to 1.2 million disadvantaged students. Special education support cuts were predicted to eliminate more than 7,200 teachers and aides. The schools that receive the most federal funding tend to “have higher poverty and a greater number of children in need,” Egan added.

While sequestration’s cuts went into effect in March, these schools didn’t have to take the hit until now. But many have already planned ahead. A survey of 541 school superintendents from 48 states by the AASA School Superintendents Association found that more than half had already accounted for the cuts in their budgets for the coming year. And few will have wiggle room to deal with the cuts, as 85 percent said neither their states nor their district could help absorb them. That has meant that over half fired personnel, just under half increased class sizes, nearly 60 percent reduced professional development, and about 45 percent put off buying new technology.

In the Greenville Public Schools district in Michigan, the reduction of federal funding to $1.26 million this year from $1.48 million last year has meant that it didn’t buy some of the additional support services it had planned on, such as replacing some of its computer systems or buying new assessment tools and additional supplies, Director of Finance John Gilchrist said. It has also made it difficult to do any professional development, as Title II funding goes to that kind of programming. On top of everything, it was hit by Head Start cuts when a program that has blended its preschoolers into Greenville’s four-year-old program pulled out from the building, resulting in a $58,000 loss of revenue. And while it has other funding to make up for it, “nothing is making up the gap on the federal side for Title I, II, and VI reductions,” he said. In the future, things could get worse. “If we were to see another cut, that starts becoming reduced services to kids,” he added.

The Roosevelt School District No. 66 in Phoenix, AZ is losing slightly over $750,000 thanks to sequestration for the school year out of an overall budget of about $60 million, CFO Kyle McQuaid said. Since last year’s contracts were already in place when the cuts took effect, the district took them into account when making salary and staffing decisions for this year. “I couldn’t really say we lost x or y number of teachers as a result of sequestration,” he said, but “we made some salary reductions and cuts this year.” Whatever wasn’t addressed through those reductions will have to be absorbed in the district’s maintenance and operations fund. While it has been able to keep class sizes steady, that’s thanks to the fact that enrollment has dropped. The district can’t expect any help from the state, as “the last few years we have really taken in on the chin here in Arizona” and districts have seen funding drop across the board.

Parents are also bracing for the impact, particularly those whose children rely on special education programs. Marcie Lippsitt, who is a parent leader for the National Center for Learning Disabilities and co-founder of the Michigan Alliance for Special Education, said that thanks to sequestration, “I’m seeing as an advocate that there is a huge shift in how kids will be serviced.” She predicted the likely effects could include increased sizes for programs in resource rooms, more segregation of students with disabilities from general education classes, a reduction in specialists for things like language and physical therapy, and less specialized Individualized Education Plans, the agreements between parents and schools as to the services children will receive. “It’s the darkest and most hideous of times” for special education students, she said.

Things will also get worse the longer sequestration is with us. While the Clover Park School District in Lakewood, WA didn’t have to make cuts this year, that won’t last if reductions continue into the next. The school receives significant funds from Impact Aid given that about 40 percent of its students’ families are connected to the military. It also receives money from Title I for disadvantaged students, funding for Head Start, and help from the federal government in paying interest on its construction bonds. Washington State has been cutting funding for five years. “We built up some fund balance to pull us through what we always felt was hopefully a temporary time,” Lynn Wilson, administrator for business, operations, and capital projects, said. “But we can’t do it forever.” Right now it’s a problem. But “if sequestration continues in year two and year three and year four and they don’t do something more intelligent, this will absolutely be a crisis,” he added.

But parents, educators, and advocates haven’t been silent. Fair Share has been going door to door to talk to people “face to face” about what sequestration means for education, Sean Garren, program director, said. “There are definitely campaigns on the ground and the energy is palpable,” he said. “Folks are really horrified that our schools are being cut.”

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