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Following the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction's failure to reach an agreement by its Thanksgiving deadline, recipients of federal discretionary funding for education are preparing for the worst. A set of projections from the National Education Association anticipates teacher layoffs totaling more than 40,000, which they say could leave a lingering impact on the nation's classrooms.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the automatic spending cuts to be enacted in fiscal year 2013 if Congress didn't enact deficit reduction legislation, part of the summer's debt ceiling deal, would amount to 7.8 percent reductions across-the-board for nondefense discretionary spending. In fiscal year 2012, the U.S. Department of Education appropriated $48.8 billion in discretionary spending. That number excludes Pell Grants, which are exempt as part of the budget deficit deal.
Based on those numbers, and accounting other minor programs exempt under the compromise, the NEA projects that the department's discretionary funding will be reduced by $3.5 billion in the next fiscal year. According to the NEA, that could lead to more than 40,000 layoffs for teachers and paraprofessionals: more than 14,500 from cuts to Title I funding alone, 24,400 total in elementary and secondary education and another 11,350 from cuts to special education grants. Those figures are based on U.S. Census data that details the portion of education spending in each state that pays for salaries, wages and benefits, according to Tom Zembar, the NEA senior policy analyst who compiled the progections. The specific numbers would be subject to change once the fiscal year 2013 budgets are finalized.
Dan Thatcher, a policy specialist on education finance for the National Conference of State Legislatures, acknowledges that there are few places left to cut for state and local education agencies except for personnel. Todd Haggerty, a policy analyst for fiscal affairs at NCSL, says education typically consumes 30 to 35 percent of a state's budget. As the recession has taken a toll on states' revenue, education has been a target for cuts. A report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found at least 23 states have made "identifiable, deep cuts" to education spending in fiscal year 2012.
Meanwhile, the share of federal funding for schools increased from 7 to 10 percent on average in the last 10 years, Thatcher explains, further exacerbating the potential impact of the cuts outlined by the NEA.
"You really are operating as a bare-bones operation now," Thatcher says. Because most non-core education spending has already been cut, increased class sizes or teacher layoffs, as predicted by the NEA, are likely the next steps, and they will likely be "more drastic than we have seen in previous years," Thatcher says.
According to the NEA projections, funding for Title I schools -- those serving disadvantage students and identified as in need of improvement under No Child Left Behind -- would be slashed by $1.1 billion. The Improving Teacher Quality State Grants would be reduced by about $193 million. Special Education Grants to States would drop by nearly $900 million. The resulting cuts to the teacher workforce would leave "a direct impact on students," says Mary Kusler, manager of federal advocacy at NEA, in the form of increased class sizes and decreased individual attention to students from overextended teachers. The NEA is still lobbying for a last-minute deal, Kusler says, that includes substantial revenues to avoid these across-the-board cuts. She points out that a year remains before the cuts would be implemented. But the possibility of such a deal after the supercommittee's failure is uncertain.
Adam Ezring, senior advocacy advisor at the Council of Chief State School Officers, concurs that state and local education agencies are stuck in a "dire situation," saying it would be "extremely challenging" to weather the cuts outlined by the NEA.
"Even as things start to get better at the national level, the situation is still much worse at the state and local level," Ezring says, noting that there is a "lag time" between economic recovery in general and the effects, particularly in revenue, felt by state and local governments.
He also notes that organizations outside the CBO, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, have estimated the discretionary cuts would be as high as 9.3 percent. Regardless, schools and state education departments would likely be saddled with the "frustrating endeavor," as he calls it, of attempting to turn around and improve schools with fewer resources.
Like Thatcher, Ezring believes state and local entities have already reached "the low-hanging fruit," and most of what's left to cut, such as teacher positions, is closer to the core mission of education. "It paints a very bleak picture," he says.
A copy of the NEA's projections is included below.