Automatic Education Cuts Loom on the Federal Horizon

Already grappling with a divisive election and an uneven economy, education advocates are bracing for more upheaval at the prospect of across-the-board federal budget cuts that would chop more than $4 billion from higher education and K-12 programs starting in January. The reductions, scheduled to begin Jan. 2, would mean automatic cuts of about 8 percent in most federal education programs unless Congress and the White House agree to other options to reduce spending. Congress triggered this January 2013 deadline when its designated “Super Committee” failed to act late last year on a plan to curb federal debt.

While lawmakers always had the option to stop the across-the-board cuts by reducing the federal debt, only this summer — in the midst of a presidential campaign — is the issue starting to gain widespread attention on Capitol Hill.

“The cuts would decimate education programs,” said Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. “We have to invest in education, and we can’t do it on the cheap,” he said.

Known formally as “sequestration,” the cuts would affect most federal programs although a few — such as Pell Grants — would gain a reprieve. Aside from programs such as college work/study, TRIO, Head Start and special education that would face reductions, the across-the-board cuts also would hit health, housing, justice and environmental programs. More than 3,000 organizations interested in education and other domestic programs signed a letter urging Congress to take action to prevent the cutbacks. Those signing the letter included the American Council on Education, the American Association of Community Colleges, the National Education Association (NEA) and Tuskegee University.

“The pending cuts would arbitrarily take education backwards” despite the higher costs of serving students, said Kim Anderson, NEA’s director of advocacy.

Looking at effects of the cut on individual programs, NEA said the reductions would cut $71 million from TRIO programs, affecting 67,000 students and rolling back funding to less than the 2002 level. Federal work/study would lose $82 million, potentially affecting 683,000 students.

“Education funding would fall off a cliff,” she said, even though K-12 and higher education is serving 5.4 million more students compared with 10 years ago.

One potential incentive for negotiation is that the $1.2 billion in automatic cuts include both domestic and defense cuts, Flores noted. Already, many pro-defense lawmakers and lobbyists are concerned about the cuts’ adverse impact on national security and defense-related employment. But while some lawmakers want to stop the defense cuts, education supporters say it’s only fair to stop the domestic spending cuts as well.

“Here in D.C., the defense cuts get most of the attention — but across America, all the automatic cuts would be deeply damaging to families and communities,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chaired the House/Senate super committee that tried, but failed, to act last year.

While “none of the automatic cuts are good policy,” she urged lawmakers and advocates to stand up against domestic cuts as well. “We are not going to allow just the defense cuts to be replaced without addressing the domestic spending cuts that would be devastating to the middle class.”

Despite heightened concern, few expect Congress to act until after the November elections, when lawmakers also face deadlines on extending the tax cuts spearheaded by former President George W. Bush as well as other debt issues.

“It’s frustrating to move from crisis to crisis,” Victor Sanchez, president of the United States Student Association, told Diverse, noting that higher education groups spent the last few months fighting to prevent a jump in student loan interest rates. In that case, Congress finally intervened just days before the July 1 deadline for higher rates to take effect.

Sanchez also said advocates are closely watching the sequestration debate since it will take place just as Congress is gearing up for the 2013 renewal of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which includes all major federal higher education programs. As a result, lawmakers’ decision on the automatic cuts will have a major impact. “It will set the tone for HEA,” he added. D