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Five Questions for Joel Packer of the Committee for Education Funding on Sequestration, Equity, and the Media’s Coverage

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Joel Packer is executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, which lobbies on behalf of a diverse membership of more than 100 organizations including K-12 school districts, colleges and universities, nonprofits, professional associations, research firms, and coalitions of educators, parents, and public employees. He spoke with EWA about the looming congressional deadline for across-the-board budget cuts of about 8 percent for every federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Education. Packer says sequestration was intended as a worst-case scenario to motivate Congress to reach a deal on the budget, and was not designed to actually take effect.

1. Officials with the National School Boards Association have compared the impact of sequestration to setting off a bomb. Is that a reasonable analogy to make?

These are going to be the largest cuts ever for public education. It’s hard to overestimate the impact. To put things in perspective, Congress has already cut $1.5 billion in education funding. Fifty programs have been completely eliminated, things like funding for educational technology and teacher quality. Real, deep cuts have already happened.

2. What will be the effect of sequestration for higher education?

There was a bipartisan commitment to maintain the maximum (Pell grant) award of $5,550 (per year). But to do that, Congress cut funding from other areas to put more money back into Pell. They eliminated Pell grants for summer learning and interest subsidies for graduate students. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 145,000 fewer college students are getting Pell grants this year compared with last year. All those changes saved money that was put back into Pell, but some of those savings also went to reduce the deficit.

College students thus have already contributed $4.6 billion that would have gone into their own pockets toward deficit reduction. Education has already done way more than its share of deficit reduction even though it’s only 2 percent of the federal budget.

While Pell grants are protected from the first-year sequester cut, College Work Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity grants will be cut. In addition, funding for historically black colleges and universities and other minority serving institutions will be cut. Community colleges will lose funding for job-training programs. Cuts in funding to research universities will impact not only the university itself but graduate students and fellowships. That, in turn, is going to hurt the whole pipeline of doctoral and post-doctoral students, and the research itself. In the long run, it will hurt U.S. innovation. That’s why this is so shortsighted.

3. Is there a question of equity in how the cuts will be felt at the local level?

Wealthier communities probably didn’t have to cut as many programs and services over the past few years, and they have more resources from funding sources like property taxes to offset the loss of federal funds. The highest-need districts are probably going to see the worst cuts.

The districts that are going to be hit the hardest receive what’s called Impact Aid, which is earmarked for schools on or adjacent to federal land, such as military bases and American Indian reservations. Those are places that can’t levee property taxes to fund schools. Most of the federal money for education is forward-funded for the next fiscal year, which means districts will have a little time to plan for cuts or to decide on layoffs. But Impact Aid is funded for the current year. That would mean cuts would happen in the middle of this school year. It would be doubly disruptive: A larger percentage of their budget would be cut, and it would happen right now.

4. One of the K-12 areas to be cut is special education, which states are required by federal law to provide. Would that make it an underfunded mandate?

Special education is already an underfunded mandate. The federal obligation is supposed to be 40 percent of the cost (of providing special education services). It’s never been that. At its highest it was around 20 percent, right now it’s at about 16 percent. The sequester just moves us further backwards.

5. Is there an aspect to this story you would like to see get more attention from education reporters?

Generally, the reporting has been very good. But I think there needs to be greater emphasis on the reality of the cuts that have already happened and what’s being proposed on top of that. This is going to do real harm to children. It’s also going to have a ripple effect. If there are layoffs of staff, those are people who contribute to the economy. If they’re not getting paid, that has an impact on the local businesses.

Another consideration is that allowing these cuts to happen will reset the baseline for education funding to a lower level. We already know there will be less money in the federal budget for the following year, which means it’s unlikely those dollars will be restored. Overall, this is moving us backwards on resources to implement reform, close achievement gaps and improve school quality.