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Why the Ticking Time Bomb of 'Sequestration' Could Decimate Education

A legislative practice of cutting funding after its already been budgeted will affect up to 7.5 million students unless we demand action.

Congress has concocted a ticking time bomb that is set to go off on the nation's K-12 schools, colleges, and universities in January 2013. "Sequestration," a term you will be hearing more about in the coming months, is a fancy legislative word for cutting funding after it has already been budgeted. In practice, what this means is that Congress takes back federal funds after they've been dis­bursed.

How we got to this point is even more complex and convoluted than the word itself. As part of last summer's debt ceiling deal, congressional leaders were required to come up with a plan to trim $1.2 trillion from the national debt by Thanksgiving. As an incentive for both Republicans and Democrats to reach a deal, automatic across-the-board spend­ing cuts were to be initiated if the dead­line passed without a budget agreement. Of course Congress failed to strike a deal.

The one saving grace was that the funding cuts wouldn't actually take effect until January 2013—more than a year after the original Thanksgiving deadline. This should have given Congress plenty of time to defuse the situation, but now with seven months until the January 2013 dead­line, Congress still hasn’t come up with a viable plan to resolve the issue.

These across-the-board cuts were designed to be evenly split between defense and nondefense spending as a way to threaten everyone's pet initiative and bring all sides to the bargaining table. Estimates are that when the January 2013 deadline comes, federal programs will be cut by more than 8 percent from their current FY12 funding levels.

The U.S. Department of Education would see a loss of $4.1 billion. Title I, the cornerstone of federal K–12 aid to schools, would be especially hard hit with a $1.2 billion cut from its current budget. According to the Committee for Education Funding—ASCD, the international education leadership organization I serve as executive director and CEO of, is a member—such a cut would adversely affect services to more than 1.7 million educationally disad­vantaged children. Similarly, federal spe­cial education funding would lose more than $1 billion that currently supports 536,000 students with disabilities.

Other programs that would suffer include Teacher Quality State Grants (-$207 million); TRIO and GEAR UP (-$96 million combined); career, technical, and adult education (-$146 million); and col­lege student aid programs that support 2 million students, which would see fund­ing cuts of approximately $150 million.

As disappointing as the funding figures are, it is the personal impact that will be most devastating. Up to 7.5 mil­lion students will have their educational services curtailed in some way, and approximately 90,000 educators stand to lose their jobs.

The impending cuts come at an espe­cially bad time: the stimulus money has run out for states and school districts; key federal education programs like Title I and IDEA have seen no funding increases in recent years—just as they are being asked to serve more students and to higher stan­dards—and smaller K–12 programs have been completely eliminated, with a net loss of $1.2 billion in federal funding.

Worst of all, the sequestration will occur in the middle of the 2012–13 school year, so educators will have to not only find a way to accurately plan next year’s school budget but also scramble to develop contingency plans to deal with massive midyear programmatic cuts should they actually come to pass. Indeed, it is not even clear right now how and when schools and districts are to return their federal funds should seques­tration take effect.

To avoid this weapon of fiscal destruc­tion, Congress must repeal the sequestra­tion mandate before it is too late. But it won’t be easy. Brinkmanship is quickly replacing negotiation and compromise as Congress' preferred legislative tactic. In a time and situation like this, education leaders must step forward and appeal to legislators in both parties to craft a sen­sible, long-term fiscal plan for the nation that avoids short-term and haphazard budget cuts that imperil investments in education.

Contact your lawmakers today and urge them to repeal sequestration now. To help, ASCD has set up a website where you can learn more about sequestration, the effect of the looming budget disaster on your own local school’s budget, and email your members of Congress demanding that they stop the folly of sequestration.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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