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Education Reporter

Sequestration Impact Exaggerated, Say Analysts
The congressional Super Committee's failure to reach an agreement on trimming $1.2 trillion from the deficit last month will trigger spending cuts that may impact federal education funding. But while Department of Education officials are up in arms concerning what some have called the largest federal education cuts since the Reagan administration, others argue that the upcoming cuts will have minimal impact — if they happen at all.
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The expected cuts, called sequestration, are currently set to take effect in the early months of 2013, with an estimated 7.8% across-the-board cut in funding to the Department of Education. Department officials say this could equal as much as a $3.5 billion drop from their 2011 discretionary budget, affecting nearly all federally-funded education programs. The National Education Association (NEA) estimates that at least 24,000 elementary and secondary education jobs will be eliminated, School Improvement Grants intended to help failing schools will lose an estimated $41.7 million, and Head Start pre-school programs, aimed at low-income families, will lose a significant portion of their funding.

Opponents of the cuts are quick to point out that sequestration comes on top of numerous state spending cuts, claiming the combined loss of money will stifle reform efforts, eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, crowd classrooms, and impact hundreds of vital school programs. Enrollment is up nationally by about 260,000 students, and education officials say these students will be hurt unless something is done to halt sequestration. Low-income students and families are said to be most negatively affected.

Analysts, however, say such claims are exaggerated. With a year remaining before budget cuts take effect, there is still time for lawmakers to offset or modify the education cuts. Sequestration would cut defense spending as well as education, so it's likely they will try to do so. The New America Foundation's Jason Delisle doubts the planned cuts will ever be made reality:

Even if Congress and the president don't turn off sequestration (they could do so on any piece of legislation), these cuts aren't likely to happen — at least not how people imagine them.

The across-the-board cuts are set to occur only a few months after the start of fiscal year 2013, so it is possible that Congress will set fiscal year 2013 funding without regard to the pending sequestration, and then watch that funding get cut January 2013. But that's highly unlikely . . . the supercommittee failure probably won't so much retroactively cut funding as it will shrink the size of the overall pie for fiscal year 2013 appropriations. How much does the pie shrink? Congress will have $953 billion to divvy up across all agencies . . . Any more than that and funding will be automatically cut by the sequestration formula a few months into fiscal year 2013. It would be silly for the president to propose one level of funding knowing that under current law it will be altered by a formula so full of exemptions and limits that is nearly impossible to know what ultimate funding level the president actually proposed for specific programs.

Mary Kusler, manager of federal advocacy for the NEA, admits that even unmodified sequestration plans are not the worst case scenario — at least, not yet:

We're very concerned about the sequester but we don't want to be in a position where a deal was made just for the sake of having one . . . The clock is ticking. We have a year to encourage Congress to come up with a balanced deal that puts significant revenue on the table while not harming the children who need the most assistance.

If the unmodified cuts do take place, a 7.8% decrease in funding is relatively low given that education spending has increased by 57% in the last decade. Sequestration would not even undo the spending increases of just the past two years: in 2009 President Obama increased the Education Department's funding by nearly $100 billion as part of the stimulus act, and last summer Congress awarded them another $10 billion through the "edujobs" bill. The Department of Education retains the third largest discretionary budget of any federal agency, and it's not likely to lose that rank anytime soon.

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