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Susan Ochshorn Headshot

Our Future: On the Chopping Block

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Our nation's capital was dark and tense this week. Lawmakers hunkered down to take action on yet another continuing resolution, or short-term budget, whose "sell-by" date is April 8. On the Hill for some legislative visits, I stopped, for a moment, at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and at the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and thought about the fate of young children and families. The closed doors looked ominous.

These are tough times, indeed. While the Pentagon makes peace with the reduction of its war-spending request of $159 billion to a mere $117 billion for fiscal year 2012, domestic spending is taking a multi-billion-dollar hit. H.R. 1, passed by the House in February, and later rejected by the Senate, cut more than $60 billion from current spending levels to fund the government for the remaining months of the fiscal year -- including billions of cuts to critical programs for children and families. Still hanging in the balance are Head Start, Early Head Start, and child care. If investments are reduced, 370,000 children will lose access to early care and education, the foundation of Obama's "Cradle to Career" strategy for producing an educated, innovative, and competitive workforce. Not to mention a viable citizenry to carry on our messy, contentious democracy.

With federal support waning, the states are on their own, budget-slashing proceeding apace. According to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- with the understated title "Governors are Proposing Further Deep Cuts in Services, Likely Harming Their Economies" -- cuts in education, health care, and other important public services are among the deepest in years. Most states are proposing FY12 spending below pre-recession (2008) levels. Here's a quick, and depressing, litany:

  • Twenty-one states have proposed cuts in pre-kindergarten and/or K-12 spending, including Texas, where pre-K funding for nearly 100,000 at-risk children -- more than 40 percent of the state's prekindergarten students -- is threatened.
  • Twenty-one states have proposed reduced investment in public schools, including Mississippi, where the governor's budget would underfund school districts by 11 percent, or $231 million, in violation of state statute.
  • Twenty states are looking at major cuts in higher education, including Pennsylvania, where the governor has proposed a 50 percent reduction in state spending.

In New York, my home state, Andrew Cuomo's budget -- released on time, he boasted in a self-congratulatory video -- cuts education spending by $1.2 billion, to be appropriated over two years with increases next year capped at four percent. CUNY and SUNY child care were also hit, reduced to $1.6 million from $3.4 million, as were Child Care Demonstration Projects, reduced to $3.4 million from $11 million. Finally, pre-K was funded at $384 million, for the next two years. Implemented in 1998, with the goal of universal coverage for four-year-olds, New York's pre-K program serves only 43 percent of children, and has seen a decline in per/child spending from $4,943 in 2002 to $3,668 in 2009, moving New York down the rankings in state spending from a respectable 11 in 2003 to an embarrassing 23 in 2009.

"Our goal is to have the world-class education system here in New York...and a thriving economy that proclaims New York is open for business," the Governor declared in his video. "Business" is the operative word. Although business won't be open without an educated workforce, or parents for whom high-quality early care and education is an elusive dream.

Cuomo must have missed last month's Annual Awards Dinner of the Citizens Budget Commission in New York, where our Federal Reserve Chair advocated against cuts to education spending. Urging "adequate investment in human capital -- that is, in the knowledge and skills of our people," Bernanke cited K-12 and post-secondary schooling as crucial to building the workforce, and emphasized the benefits of early childhood education, whose payoff, he noted can be "especially high."

"Misguided" does not even begin to describe the actions of our nation's lawmakers, who, dollar by shrinking dollar, are putting our country's future on the chopping block.