George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

The Fiscal Cliff: Why You Should Care and What You Can Do

December 17, 2012
Image credit: Veer

It is easy to ignore the noise from Washington, DC, about the upcoming fiscal cliff. The tone from the Capitol hardly seems changed from the pre-election rhetoric that made many of us tune out what politicians have to say.

But we need to tune in on this. The fiscal cliff, particularly the aspect of it known as sequestration (automatic 8.2 percent budget cuts to all federal discretionary spending programs that will occur in January unless Congress acts), has very real implications for our nation's schools. The National Education Association (NEA) estimates that it will cut $4.8 billion in education funding (including cuts to Head Start), impacting 9.3 million students attending pre-K, elementary, secondary and postsecondary schools.

A July survey by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) shows that these cuts will be felt in a variety of ways. More than half of responding school administrators plan to reduce professional development (or have already reduced it); reduce academic programs (such enrichment, after-school, interventions and so on); lay off non-instructional staff; lay off instructional staff; increase class size; and defer technology purchases.

Additional cost-saving strategies being considered by administrators include deferring textbook purchases, deferring maintenance, eliminating summer school programs, reducing course offerings, reducing extracurricular activities, cutting bus transportation and more.

An Inequitable Impact

As another AASA report points out, these cuts will not impact all students equally. While most cuts enacted in sequestration will not be felt in K-12 education until the 2013-14 school year, one program would see cuts in January: Impact Aid. Schools receive this aid when federally owned property within their district does not generate property taxes -- for example, Federal Indian Trust land and military bases.

In addition, students in poorer communities will be disproportionately impacted by the sequester. As we all know, school funding comes from a mix of local, state and federal revenue. Schools in poorer communities tend to receive more of their funding from the federal government than those in wealthier communities for a variety of reasons, including that poorer communities receive more funding from federal education programs like Title I (targeted at low-income youth) and that they tend to lack the capacity to raise additional funds locally. As the report points out, there are districts where federal revenue represents less than 5 percent of the operating budget, and districts where it represents more than 20 percent of the operating budget. While the percentage of federal funding to be cut is 8.2 percent across-the-board, 8.2 percent of five is much less than 8.2 percent of 20.

But don't get the idea that these cuts will only impact low-income students or other special populations (for example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which dedicates funding for special education students, will see 8.2 percent of its budget cut) -- as one Missouri school administrator said in July: "The cuts do not just affect our federally funded programs. They impact all instructional program areas, as these areas will have to assist in covering shortfalls."

What Can You Do?

Fortunately, there are many solutions to help us avoid sequestration. How can you help?

  • Educate yourself. Check out frequently asked questions on sequestration. And learn more about how sequestration would impact your state in particular
  • Contact your Congressional representatives. Urge them to act
  • Spread the word on social media. See tips on doing so, with sample tweets, prepared by a broad coalition hoping to save NDD (nondefense discretionary) programs -- of which education is one -- from the sequester
  • Send an invoice to Congress. Detail the possible impact of sequestration on your district, letting your representatives know what it would mean in terms of job cuts, program reductions, and service elimination
  • Write a letter to the editor. Both the National PTA and the National School Boards Association offer toolkits including templates for letters to the editors. While these templates are designed for their constituents, they are easy to adapt
  • Take the "Kids Not Cuts" pledge. Sign your name to this NEA-led drive to urge Congress to support public education and working families and stop giving tax breaks to the wealthiest two percent
  • Keep talking/writing. There are many ways to prevent sequestration. Invite your colleagues to join in the conversation however they can.

Of course, it goes without saying that education is not the only sector facing crisis if we go off the fiscal cliff. All discretionary spending, including money spent on defense, national parks, medical and scientific research, infrastructure and more would be impacted to the tune of $1 trillion through 2021. So even if you are not as concerned with the impact of the sequester on education as I am, take a minute to think about all the other ways that your daily life could be impacted by congressional inaction on this issue, and act accordingly.

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