From the east coast to the west, school districts are having meetings to decide which education programs to slash and how many pink slips to write.
Many people said the mandatory, across-the-board budget cuts would not hit schools until the 2013-14 school year, but that has not been the case. The cuts are already impacting schools on Native American lands and in rural areas. Special education will face about a 16 percent cut because of sequestration, and Head Start is also taking a hit. The federal early childhood education program is meant to provide school readiness for low-income kids up to five years old.
The cut will affect “the districts with a high percentage of children on free and reduced lunch who receive the highest amount of federal aid,” Dan Domenech, executive director of American Association of School Administrators, wrote on his blog in early March. “It will be districts with a high concentration of children with special education students who will see a 5.2% cut in their IDEA funds. School districts will have six months to plan for the cuts, but the results in September will not be pleasant. Not after five years of significant reductions in budgets, personnel, and services.”
Many school districts, about 1,300 nationwide serving 11 million students, receive Impact Aid.
These students could live on Indian lands, have parents in the military, reside in low-rent housing projects or have parents who are civilian but work and live on federal property. For them, Impact Aid, which was signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1950, is critical because unlike school districts that receive local property taxes theirs do not.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also warned about the dire cuts from the federal sequestration.
“When the cuts hit, they will hurt the most vulnerable students worst,” Duncan said during February testimony on Capitol Hill.
The Department of Education website tells stories of districts that are already feeling the sequestration squeeze.
Window Rock United School District in Fort Defiance, Arizona, serves 2,400 students in the capital of the Navajo Nation. The local economy is already in economic straights with high unemployment, and two-thirds of the students live in substandard housing, or worse, are homeless. That district has already eliminated 40 staff positions but another 65 jobs may be eliminated. Schools may also close, and students would face hour-long bus rides to a different school.
Last week, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human services, Education, and Related Agencies heard from school administrators about the loss of Impact Aid. Dr. Will Hardin, a superintendent of Camden County Schools in Kingsland, Georgia, testified that his district serves families of Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base.
“Without Impact Aid the negative consequences to federally impacted communities are undeniable,” Hardin testified.
Because of the 2008 recession, Hardin said in his testimony, that his district had eliminated art and music from elementary schools along with 272 of 1,486 positions resulting in class size increases.
“We reduced our instructional calendar from 180 days to 166 lengthened days, furloughed teachers six days and administrators eight for each of the last three years,” Hardin said.
Head Start programs around the country are also feeling the punch. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, a Head Start program will close classrooms 13 days early for the summer. The same is happening in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
The National Head Start Association has started a Take Action plan on its website to tell Congress and President Barack Obama to end sequestration.
Comments on the page are distressing.
One woman in Washington wrote, “You must find the money to keep head start going. If not this will force low income & at risk children into being on the streets or left home alone. These families cannot afford day care. You will also be forcing a lot of good teachers going without jobs and they also have families to support. Please help the American people.”
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com