Congress may have been on recess last week, but teacher associations across the United States worked the phones to get information to their members on the $5 billion in education cuts included in the U.S. House of Representatives budget resolution.
Republican lawmakers say the cuts, along with about $61 billion in other cuts on everything from healthcare to the environment, are necessary to wrangle the nation's spending back under control. The Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate and the White House beg to differ, saying the bill is either dead on arrival or will be vetoed -- depending on who's speaking -- and would cripple the still-fragile economic recovery.
Looming is Friday, when the current continuing resolution -- a measure that allows the federal government to operate under 2010 spending levels -- expires and federal agencies will shut down. The budget for the current fiscal year never was passed and the government has been bouncing from continuing resolution to continuing resolution to keep the lights on. Republicans say cuts must be part of the CR; Democrats have started looking for potential cuts they hope will be palatable.
Preparing for what could be a messy showdown, education advocates are making their case to lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, to resist the cuts.
And if that weren't bad, school districts in some states have already begun mailing out pink slips to their teachers -- as a pre-emptive move against state-provided funds that aren't approved but are expected to be lower than requested.
Snip, snip here; snip snip there
Some of the cuts included in the House budget resolution are whoppers to the education community. Head Start is targeted for one of the biggest reductions: $1 billion in a budget of about $7.2 billion.
Danielle Ewen, director of childcare and early-education policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, told Education Week the proposed cuts would be one of the largest in the history of the program. Some programs would almost certainly have to close classrooms and make big cuts in quality and hours of service, such as going from five to four days.
"We've been trying hard to let people know this is real," she said.
The proposed cuts to Head Start have a domino effect. Parents will have to make childcare arrangements, which could be difficult for households, Ewen said. Lack of childcare, in turn, makes it harder for parents to look for work or return to school. No Head Start also could mean low-income children starting out behind their more advantaged peers, forming the first crack in the achievement gap, she said.
Head Start can't rely on states and localities to make up federal funding if it's cut, Ewen added.
"There's no other money to serve these children," she said. "This is the make or break for a lot of families. There's no fallback for them."
The measure also would cut nearly $700 million from Title I grants to districts, said Mary Kusler, the National Education Association's manager of federal advocacy.
"That's a loss of jobs, that's the elimination of educators from classrooms around the country who work with the students most in need," she said. "This has become very personal for our membership."
While particularly distressed about proposed cuts to Title I grants to districts, special education funding, and Pell Grants, the NEA is unhappy about all of the cuts, including the $336.6 million to the School Improvement Grants program and $500 million from the Improving Teacher Quality State Grants, Kusler said.
Pell under fire from House, administration
The U.S. House of Representatives budget resolution would slash about $5.7 billion from the Pell Grants program, one of the most popular programs for post-secondary students.
The Department of Education also proposes cutting Pell grants, although not as drastically.
"We are cutting where we can to invest where we must," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in announcing the budget proposal. "These are challenging times, but we can't delay investments that will secure our future. We must educate our way to a better economy by investing responsibly, advancing reform and demanding results."
The budget request would protect increases in the maximum Pell grant to $5,550 while ensuring that all eligible students continue to be served, Duncan said. To sustain the program, the Obama administration proposed eliminating subsidies for graduate students with loans and eliminating a provision that enables some students to receive two Pell grants in a single year.
Not including Pell Grants, the administration's 2012 budget request for the Education Department is $48.8 billion, an increase of $2 billion (4.3 percent) over the unapproved 2011 budget.
The proposal would eliminate 13 programs, saving $147 million next year, the department said.
"These are very tough choices but with rising demand, we have to stretch our dollars as far as possible and do more with less," Duncan said.
Tight budget time lines throw school officials for a loop
School district officials have cut programs, furloughed teachers, raised activity fees and consolidated school buildings and populations to cope with shrinking budgets.
This time of year, district leaders are waiting for state lawmakers to pass their budgets to learn how much state funding will be distributed to school districts.
For 46 states, the fiscal year begins July 1, meaning state lawmakers need to have their budgets finalized by then. But July 1 also is the start date of the fiscal year for many local governments and school districts, meaning they need to know what they'll get from the state before building their budget -- which they won't know until the their state's budget is signed into law.
Before the economy tanked, it wasn't an issue since education was a "safe" line item, StateLine.org reported. No more. Everything is on the table, including cuts to education, raising uncertainty to unfamiliar territory for local school officials.
"The main way of solving that problem is not to change the fiscal year (as some quarters suggest) but for the state governments to enact their budgets on time," Roy Meyers, professor of political science at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, told StateLine.org.
More and more school districts rely on the largess of lawmakers because many states have restrictions on property-tax increases that limit the ability of local governments and school districts to raise revenue themselves.
To cope with the uncertainty, massive numbers of layoff notices are the mail in many school districts across the nation.
Already in Marion, Ill., an early-childhood education agency laid off all 45 of its staff members because of budget uncertainty. It gets all of its funding from a state grant that may -- or may not -- be renewed this year.
Last year, the entire staff of Williamson County Early Childhood Cooperative was laid off as week, but rehired in July, just four weeks before the start of the school year, when Illinois passed a budget that spared its funding.
"We tell our employees to prepare for next school year -- and prepare to not be here," cooperative Director Linda Drust told StateLine.org. "This is impacting everyone, from the top down. It's from myself as the director of the entire program to our custodians."
In Wisconsin, under the national spotlight over Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to severely curtail public employees' bargaining rights, school districts began sending out pink slips last week, since the contracts are under fire and in flux.
And in Providence, R.I., the school district sent layoff notices to all 2,000 of its teachers.