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Sequestration Threatens to Further Exacerbate Educational Disparities in America

President Barack Obama

SOURCE: AP/John Bazemore

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at the Decatur Recreation Center in Decatur, Georgia, Thursday, February 14, 2013, about his plans for early childhood education.

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Thanks to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and other congressional Republicans, millions of our most vulnerable children—those living in poverty, from low-income families, and with disabilities—could be stripped of much-needed education support and services. These children receive inequitable educational opportunities at current funding levels, and these disparities will only be exacerbated if Congress doesn’t act by March 1 to preserve federal education programs from sequestration. 

“Sequestration”—a buzzword in Washington—refers to a series of automatic across-the-board spending cuts that would affect almost every major government agency, resulting in an approximately 5.3 percent cut overall to essential education programs. The cuts would be significant, totaling $1.7 billion and impacting up to 1.2 million children, at least 2,700 schools, and up to 30,000 staff.

Senate Democrats have put forth a proposal to postpone sequestration through the end of this year, while congressional Republicans have all but given up on preventing it. Not only have outspoken conservative leaders such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) declared that sequestration will happen, but Speaker Boehner is also treating the sequester as a bargaining chip, seeing only the potential for political victories in the broader ongoing budget negotiations—not the individual children and schools in need. 

Make no mistake: It is children who will feel the impact of these automatic cuts. Numerous educational programs will be affected, but the greatest impact will be to the most essential programs that most directly affect children from low-income communities: No Child Left Behind Title I funding; Head Start and Early Head Start funding; and funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The impact on each program is detailed below.

No Child Left Behind Title I funding

No Child Left Behind Title I funding

  • $725 million in cuts
  • 2,700 schools affected
  • 1.2 million students impacted
  • 9,880 staff at risk

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act, provides federal funding for high-poverty elementary and secondary schools. It is the most significant source of federal funding that goes toward tackling the academic achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their more-advantaged peers. Research shows that children in poverty require additional academic interventions to ensure that they have equal educational opportunities to those of their more affluent peers.

For the past 48 years, federal No Child Left Behind Title I dollars have provided an essential influx of funding to cash-strapped states and districts that have been struggling to provide these additional services on their own. While the law’s funding needs some retooling, a decrease in Title I dollars will mean the elimination of these vital support services for disadvantaged students, which threatens to widen rather than reduce the achievement gap. Instead of moving the country forward, these cuts will push it backward.

Altogether, the sequester would cut approximately $725 million* from Title I funding, potentially affecting 2,700 schools, impacting 1.2 million students, and placing 9,880 education staff at risk of losing their jobs.

These cuts will be felt in every region of the country and in every state, regardless of size. Pennsylvania, for example, will lose more than $26 million, which will potentially affect 86 schools and almost 30,000 students; Tennessee faces $14 million in cuts, which may burden 61 schools and more than 30,000 students; and Nevada will lose $9 million, a threat to 13 schools and 13,000 students. As can be expected, the nation’s largest districts—those with hundreds of thousands of students—will each lose millions of dollars. To put this into context: New York City—the nation’s largest school district—received more than $770 million in Title I dollars in 2012. Los Angeles—the second largest recipient of Title 1 funds—received more than $330 million in 2012.

True to Title I’s intent, however, some of the largest potential losers are not just those with the largest number of children; they are also those with the highest percentage of children living in poverty. Quite literally, districts where student need is the greatest will lose the most support. Take Cleveland, for example, in Speaker Boehner’s home state of Ohio: The district has less than 50,000 students, but according to the Census Bureau, almost 50 percent of its school-age children live in poverty. As a result, Cleveland received more than $60 million in Title I funding in 2012, or, according to our calculations, roughly $2,800 per child in poverty. To put this in perspective, Broward County, Florida, whose school enrollment is more than five times the size of Cleveland’s—about 250,000 students—but has a lower percentage of students in poverty, received $65 million of Title 1 funds in 2012—a difference of just $5 million. Columbus, Ohio, also tops the list, having received more than $50 million in 2012, despite having only 51,000 students. This amounts, very roughly, to $2,500 per child in poverty, using the same Census Bureau data.

In cities and districts with such high concentrations of poverty, the loss of federal dollars would be significant. It would mean a substantial cutback in educational quality and needed services for children to succeed in school. These services include reading and math teachers, tutoring, early literacy intervention programs, expanded learning time, and preschool for low-income children. Yet Speaker Boehner is apparently willing to allow sequestration, despite the fact that many of the students who will be most impacted are his fellow Buckeyes.

Head Start and Early Head Start

Head Start and Early Head Start

  • $424 million in cuts
  • 70,000 children impacted immediately
  • 14,000 staff at risk

Also on the sequestration chopping block is Head Start, a federally funded program that promotes school readiness for young children from low-income families by providing comprehensive education, health, and nutrition services and promoting parental involvement in children’s education. As President Barack Obama recognized just last week in his State of the Union address, years of research demonstrates that the first five years of a child’s cognitive and emotional development establish the foundation for learning and achievement throughout the child’s life.

Yet too many children do not receive high-quality early childhood education. Their families simply can’t afford it. Head Start and Early Head Start—a similar program for infants—both work to ensure that parental income does not determine whether a child will be able to learn during these influential years. But should sequestration happen next week, approximately 70,000 children will be kicked out of Head Start due to inadequate funding.

Unlike many federal education programs that receive funding a year in advance, the impact of cutting Head Start’s budget would be felt immediately. Children would be forced out of the program as soon as sequestration is implemented. This abrupt dismissal will also immediately burden low-income working parents, who will be forced to find—and often pay for—other early childhood education options. Parents may even have to leave the workforce if such options are not available or affordable.

Much akin to Title I funding cuts, no state in the country can escape the impact of cutting Head Start. Maine stands to lose about $2 million in funding, which would threaten its almost 4,000 Head Start and Early Head Start enrollees and the programs’ 1,200 staff. Alabama is set to lose $7 million, which would threaten its 17,000 enrollees and almost 4,000 staff. And Ohio will lose $15 million, a threat to its almost 40,000 enrollees and 7,500 staff.

As it is, less than half of all children from low-income families reach kindergarten ready for school. Congressional Republicans, in signaling their approval of these cuts to Head Start, seem happy to leave even more children unprepared.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Act

  • $579 million in cuts
  • 6,900 staff impacted

If sequestration goes through, funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Act could be reduced by as much as $579 million. This law governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and other related services to children with disabilities ages 3 to 21. It also provides funding to states to help cover the expensive costs of providing these services. States and districts are legally required to provide these services—with or without federal funding. States and districts would therefore be forced to make up the almost $600 million in order to cover the costs of approximately 6,900 teachers, aides, and other key staff needed to support students with disabilities, according to estimates from the Department of Education.

No one knows where states and districts will come up with this money or what programs will be affected as the money is pulled from other areas of states’ budgets in order to make up for Congress’s indifference. Ohio will have to find an extra $22 million against the backdrop of a state budget deficit that this year reached about $3 billion. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R) home state of Kentucky will have to come up with more than $7.6 million, but fortunately, that state’s budget was only about $370 million short this year.

Politics is politics, and in Washington it’s often the only thing anyone sees. But when it comes to education and the vital programs that millions of our neediest children rely on, we must pull ourselves out of the political game and remember that the decisions made—or, in the case of congressional Republicans, the failure to make any decisions at all—can have a real and significant impact on communities, schools, classrooms, and those we should be protecting the most: our children.

There are important issues at the heart of the sequestration debate, including questions about the size and role of government. But that debate should not be in the form of arbitrary, across-the-board, and irrational cuts instated at the expense of our most disadvantaged students. They deserve more from Speaker Boehner, from Minority Leader McConnell, and from Republicans in Congress.

Juliana Herman and Kaitlin Pennington are Education Policy Analysts at the Center for American Progress.

* Unless otherwise noted, all similar numbers about specific cuts as a result of sequestration were taken from this source.

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