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Super Committee's Failure Will Spur Hefty K-12 Cuts Without A Congressional Fix

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SUPER COMMITTEE FAILURE EDUCATION
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) tells reporters about the super committee's failure to strike a bargain. | Getty Images

Seventy thousand teaching jobs. More than one billion in Title I grants to disadvantaged school districts. Nearly 900 million in funding for special education students.

All these and more K-12 educational expenditures will be axed smack in the middle of the 2012-2013 school year -- barring an act of Congress that would prevent the automatic, across-the-board cuts set by this summer's debt deal from going into effect, according to the National Education Association.

These cuts became one step closer to reality when the 12-member congressional super committee's admitted Monday that it had failed to reach an agreement on trimming $1.2 trillion from the deficit.

And the triggered cuts will feel all the worse because they'll be widening still-open wounds of state-level cuts. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 37 states are providing less funding per-student this year than last. In 17 states, these funding levels are as much as 10 percent lower.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan condemned the super committee's failure to deliver.

"Because the super committee failed to live up to its responsibility, education programs that affect young Americans across the country now face across-the-board cuts," Duncan said in a statement Monday.

Joe Gertsema, superintendent of the 2,800-student Yankton, South Dakota school district, expects to feel the pain of the upcoming federal cuts firsthand.

"Our students will be deprived," Gertsema said Wednesday, adding that the programs that would be cut most would scrap special-education programs, tutoring for struggling students and several jobs. "The economy can't handle that very well," he continued.

What's worse, noted Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, is that the cuts could come in the middle of the school year.

"That would be more disruptive," Packer said Wednesday.

Federal education cuts like these haven't been seen since the Reagan administration, said Jack Jennings, a former Democratic education hill staffer who now heads the Center for Education Policy.

"Reagan had a working control of the House, with the Southern Democrats voting with the Republicans," Jennings recalled.

In 1981, the House Education and Labor committee Jennings worked for was charged with cutting spending.

"Spending for education was frozen for four years," he said Wednesday. "This is the same type of thing. It meant that poor children received fewer services to help them with reading. Children with disabilities received fewer services. There were fewer free lunches available."

According to the National Education Association's projections, the triggered cuts would hurt students who need the most help: School Improvement Grants that help failing schools are slated to lose $41.7 million. Head Start pre-school programs, which would be cut by $589.7 billion, primarily serve low-income families. All Department of Education programs -- except for Pell Grants, which are exempt -- would take a hit.

Based on current Department of Education funding levels, NEA analyst Tom Zembar estimated that sequestration would cut the agency's budget by a total of $3.54 billion.

Zembar used the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of 7.8 percent across-the-board cuts to prepare his projections. That's a relatively conservative number: the National Governors Association predicted 8.8 percent, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the cuts could be as great as 9.3 percent.

But the exact figure won't be set until the White House Office of Management and Budget calculates the amount as the cuts triggered by the super committee failure are enforced.

"There is more than a year for Congress to do its job and undertake balanced deficit reduction at least equal to what the Supercommittee was charged to accomplish," Meg Reilly, an OMB spokesperson, said in an email. "In the meantime, government operations for this fiscal year continue as normal. When appropriate, OMB will take necessary steps to ensure that if there is a sequester, the government is prepared for it."

Mary Kusler, the NEA's manager of federal advocacy, said Wednesday that the cuts will feel worse because they come on top of several hundred thousand teachers being laid off. She added that while the sequestration will be tough, it's not the worst case scenario for K-12 spending.

"We're very concerned about the sequester but we didn't want to be in a position where a deal was made just for the sake of having one," Kusler said.

The NEA is still lobbying Congress for a way to avoid the triggered cuts, according to Kusler.

"The clock is ticking," she said. "We have a year to encourage Congress to come up with a balanced deal that puts significant revenue on the table while not harming the children who need the most assistance."

Whatever happens, Jennings said that a negative impact -- class sizes will get bigger, services will be eliminated, and teachers will be laid off -- is inevitable.

He said, "Education will get swept up in any financial disaster as part of this larger situation."

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