If Congress and the Obama administration can't agree on a budget deal by Friday, the federal government will be forced to cut $85 billion from just about every federally funded program. Every state could lose federal aid, and a myriad of government programs could shut down or curtail services — and that includes the nation's public schools.
There is one bit of good news for schools: Because most federal aid to schools is forward-funded, the cuts triggered by sequestration would not hit classrooms until September at the earliest. But once they do hit, federal funding for education in some places will drop considerably.
Ed Massey, school board chairman in Boone County, Ky., says he expects to see a significant hit — between $1.1 and $1.3 million. "What that translates to in our district is the loss of approximately 15 teachers," he says.
Massey says laying off teachers is his biggest worry, but his district could also lose reading coaches, after-school programs, teacher training and vocational education.
"This is just another slap in the face to the American public," Massey says. "And so, yes, I'm angry. I'm angry because I believe politicians have been irresponsible."
'We Have A Lot Of Questions'
That sentiment seems widespread. For Tina Mannarino, head of early childhood education and Head Start in New Haven, Conn., it's the uncertainty that's maddening. No one really knows what's going to happen after March 1.
"We don't know when the cuts take effect, so we have a lot of questions," she says. Mannarino says she's heard that Connecticut may have to cut 700 children from Head Start programs across the state, but she's not sure she can cut any kids from her program.
"Because under our current contract with the government, we are supposed to be serving a certain number of children," Mannarino says. "And if we fall below that number, there is a penalty. And I think it's frustrating, and it makes people feel powerless and angry."
The Obama administration has tried to harness that anger and direct it at congressional Republicans.
"We don't have any ability with dumb cuts like this to figure out what the right thing to do is," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation. "It just means a lot more children will not get the kinds of services and opportunities they need, and as many as 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs."
Duncan said high-poverty schools could lose $725 million in Title I funds; special education could lose $600 million; and work-study programs on college campuses could be cut by $49 million. That would eliminate 33,000 students from the program, he said.
To Some, 'Relatively Minor' Cuts
But Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, says Duncan and the Obama administration are exaggerating the impact sequestration would have on education.
"On the whole, when you look at it nationally, these are not major cuts," he says. "In most places, these cuts are going to be relatively minor, and school districts are going to be able to handle it quite well.
"The places that are going to get hit the hardest are the ones that have high concentrations of poor kids and are in states that are not very generous in terms of state dollars, so they really do rely quite a bit on the federal funding," Petrilli says.
That includes school systems that receive what is known as "impact aid." These districts cannot rely on local property taxes to fund schools because they're on federal government land or near big military bases.
In Killeen, Texas, for instance, half of the 42,000 students there have at least one parent serving at the Fort Hood Army base.
Dr. Robert Muller, superintendent of Killeen schools, says his district could lose a lot of funding — but no one can say how much. "We don't know," he says. "We're not sure if it's $2.6 [million] or $4.6 [million]."
Whatever it is, it would be on top of the $17 million Killeen has already lost because of state cuts in school funding. On Friday, Muller says he'll have to start thinking about the 55 to 57 teachers he may have to let go.