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Sequestration—Not the Way to Transform our Future

Featured post from Karen Hawley Miles, President and Executive Director 

On Friday afternoon, millions of public school students across the country will head home from a week of learning. When they return on Monday, the future of school may not look the same. Unless Congress comes to its senses before the clock strikes midnight, a set of mindless, automatic budget cuts known as “sequestration” will descend, stripping $2.8 billion in federal funding from districts nationwide.

Over the past three years, the Department of Education has shuttered nearly 50 federal programs and saved $1.2 billion in the process. As Secretary Duncan told Congress last week, “Those programs didn’t work, had achieved their purpose, or could be done more effectively.” That’s exactly the sort of cost-cutting ERS explores with our district partners: strategic, targeted, and always paired with reinvestment to meet student needs.

Sequestration, on the other hand, will cut the very programs that schools rely on to educate the neediest children at a time when income and skill gaps are greater than ever before. A Senate committee report predicts that these indiscriminate cuts will cleave over $1.1 billion from Title I, which serves children in poverty. Special education students will see $900 million in IDEA funding pulled out from under them. For 200,000 teachers, professional development grants will dry up. And 75 of the nation’s most desperately struggling schools will lose their School Improvement Grants.i

At ERS, we typically encourage district leaders to view tough times as opportunity.  Not this time. Sequestration is not the belt-tightening we have come to expect when the budget cycle rolls around; it is invasive surgery performed in the dark and, tragically, upon the wrong patient. We expect that district leaders will roll up their sleeves and juggle resources to soften this blow, as they have increasingly learned to do over the past few years. Leaders in Denver and Charlotte (just to name two) have made difficult trade-offs in ways that protect and sometimes even refocus resources on the most important priorities. While the sudden timing of these cuts will leave districts struggling to adapt, we hope that our new DREAM tool can help salvage strategy in this profoundly non-strategic moment.

But for the neediest schools—those marooned by rural poverty and urban blight; on American Indian reservations and military bases; entering tough years of turnaround or re-emerging into normalcy—it may not be enough. As a nation, our foremost obligation is the education of our children. Congress gladly professes as much. When students arrive on Monday, they may question our commitment.

i “Under Threat: Sequestration’s Impact on Nondefense Jobs and Services,” a report by Sen. Tom Harkin, Chairman, Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, July 25,2012.

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