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Educators Brace For Sequestration


And now we turn to a political stalemate that seems to be turning into a crisis. We've been talking about the across-the-board cuts to the federal budget that seem more and more likely to go into effect this Friday because Congress and the White House have not agreed on a deficit reduction plan. It's being called sequestration.

Today, we're going to ask whether and how this will affect the nation's schools. Educators at all levels are saying this could be a crisis, so we wanted to separate the myths from facts about the education cuts.

Joining us to do that is Emily Richmond. She's the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. Also with us is Kelly Field. She's a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

EMILY RICHMOND: Thanks for having us.

KELLY FIELD: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Emily, I'm going to start with you. I think a lot of people are used to thinking about - particularly K through 12 education is something that's primarily a state and local responsibility. So how is it that these federal budget cuts - potential across-the-board budget cuts - are causing such concern among educators at the K through 12 level?

RICHMOND: Well, nationally, federal dollars account for between about 10 and 12 percent of a school district's budget, but you have to remember that that's the average, so there are going to be states where it's a lot higher and states where it's a little bit lower.

So these kinds of budget cuts are going to hurt states that are more dependent on federal dollars a lot more significantly than, for example, a state that has other sources of revenues they can depend on, like taxes or sales.

And what is most concerning, I think, to people is there's a sense of inequity here. For example, the cuts are going to hurt much more in a state like Alabama than it would in a state like Connecticut. And, in a state where you are so dependent on those federal dollars, there isn't exactly a lot of money at the state and local level to make up that deficit in the revenue.

So, if you have to cut, for example, 10 percent of your budget - well, where is that going to come from? And, in most school districts, the biggest expenditure is personnel. It's anywhere from about 65 percent to 90 percent of your money is going to pay people's salaries. So you can only cut so many programs and services before, eventually, you must start cutting jobs.

MARTIN: Is the federal imprint felt in particular programs? I know we've talked about areas that are more likely to be affected. Like you said, Alabama more likely to be affected than Connecticut, but are there particular programs within those states that are more likely to take a hit?

RICHMOND: Absolutely. The federal imprint is felt most strongly in the programs that serve the most vulnerable students. For example, what we're talking about now with sequestration with these across-the-board cuts is $725 million in Title One funds could be eliminated, which will be the equivalent of about 10,000 jobs at risk. That's what Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, said in a call with reporters last week.

And those Title One dollars are reserved for schools that serve the largest populations of students coming from low income households, students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

We're also talking about states losing almost $600 million in special education funding, and that's incredibly difficult for the states to make up.

MARTIN: Kelly, what about higher education? How much do state colleges and universities - or even private colleges and universities - rely on federal funding? I think, again, people have an image that the federal funding goes mainly to things like scientific research and things like that. Is that true? What is the federal imprint in higher education?

FIELD: Well, the federal level of the impact will be felt most on student aid and on federal research, as you mentioned. The Pell Grant program is exempt from sequestration, at least in the first year, but there will be significant cuts to the budgets for the NIH, the NSF and the other science agencies, all of which provide significant amounts of money to colleges and universities.

We don't have the same sort of funding as they do at K-12, at the higher education level, with money going directly to colleges, with the exception of certain types of institutions that are - some money that go to historically black colleges, universities and a few other categories of institutions, Hispanic serving institutions. But the bulk of the money goes to research and student aid.

MARTIN: So what does this mean, Kelly? I mean, the fact that students are already enrolled. Kids aren't going to go home, are they?

FIELD: Arne Duncan said in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee that there could be 33,000 fewer work study grants administered and 71,000 fewer supplemental grants, which are generally provided as addition aid to Pell Grant recipients. So these are low income students, the same students that are going to be affected at the K-12 level.

Some schools may be able to make up some of this money through institutional aid, but less wealthy institutions, those that don't have endowments, those that, you know, don't have a lot of their own resources, probably won't be able to and these students will either have to borrow more or work more and, in some cases, they might drop out.

MARTIN: There are students who literally might not be able to finish out the school year that they've already started?

FIELD: No. This will be next year's school year. This is creating a lot of uncertainty for next year's students and students that are currently enrolled that will be, you know, moving on to the next class, next year. In some cases, financial aid officers are putting asterisks in their board letters to let students know, hey, you know, we may have to reduce your award going forward if this happens.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the possible impact of those across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, on education. Our guests are Kelly Field from the Chronicle of Higher Education. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Emily Richmond of the National Education Writers Association.

Emily, what about the same question I asked Kelly, which is, what might we see? What might students, parents, teachers in the K through 12 area, see going forward?

RICHMOND: The important thing to note is that, while the budget cuts are supposed to take effect Friday, school districts, because they have to plan their budgets, are given until the start of the new fiscal year to prepare for this.

And I think it's important to note that they have been preparing, at least a large number of them. So we're not going to see teachers sent home during this school year, could you see them sent home and not showing up for the first day of school in the fall? I think it's an absolute possibility.

MARTIN: What about the programs that you talked about? Programs like special ed or programs that serve particularly the large populations of low income students, special supports for low income students or disadvantaged students or kids with educational deficits? What might be the impact there?

RICHMOND: Well, if you're looking right here in Washington, D.C., I mean, if you eliminate the Head Start and Early Head Start preschool programs here in the District, you're going to be looking at 200 fewer seats for children that critically need those seats. These are parents who can not afford any kind of a private education program for their children. You're looking at a half a million dollars in funding straight across the board for schools. A thousand fewer students would be served and schools would have to cut back on teachers, or increase class sizes, in order to make do with the money that they have.

In a larger state like California, we're talking about possibly $90 million in funding for schools across the board, maybe 1,200 teachers and aids losing their jobs. And these numbers are all coming from the White House.

MARTIN: Well - and I'm glad you said that, you know, Emily, because there is always an argument that there's a lot of theatre involved in talking about budget cuts at whatever level. I mean, whether you're negotiating over a new kitchen, let's say, you know, at home, or whether you're talking about, sort of, a global (unintelligible), this kind of information is coming from the White House.

Is there an argument to be made that perhaps they're being a little dramatic to make a point, and that this is really part of the negotiation process and that perhaps there are ways that the cuts don't need to be as - that these populations don't need to be as severe, they don't need to be as heavily affected?

RICHMOND: A few months back, when we were looking at the first (unintelligible) for sequestration before the extension, which put it on the table for this week, I was on a phone call with some members of the National Association of School Boards. And someone on that call, one of the officials there, compared what was about to happen to an academic Pearl Harbor. And, in my mind, I think, the only thing you should really compare to Pearl Harbor is probably Pearl Harbor. And when you start to use language like that, a lot of people will say you're saying the sky is falling. It's inflammatory.

And what worries me about that is, when the sky doesn't fall when this last-minute deal is reached, people are going to pay less attention the next time these very serious and very real concerns are raised.

I think it's also fair to say that the critics believe that there is plenty of money for public schools. It's just not something spent wisely enough. It's not being spent efficiently enough, and certainly, we can point to many examples of waste in school districts where people have found it, solved it, whether it's energy efficiencies or redundancies in employment. There's certainly money that can be saved. The question is whether it can be saved to the extent to make up for these devastating cuts to very necessary programs.

MARTIN: Kelly, what about you? Same question to you.

FIELD: Yeah. Well, I would note, also, that, you know, it's somewhat difficult to calculate the precise impact that sequestration would have, because the cuts will be applied to the fiscal 2013 budget that hasn't even been passed yet. You know, Congress has been running on a continued resolution for a number of months. It expires at the end of March, so they're just funding everything at last year's levels right now. So most of these numbers that we're hearing are assuming level funding going forward, but those numbers could change.

And then, also, the agencies could have some discretion in terms of how they allocate the cuts. They might choose to cut more deeply in one area to spare another area.

MARTIN: On the one hand, we hear that the public isn't really that engaged, which is why the president's going around, you know, trying to get people interested in this. On the other hand, we hear people really upset and that it's really affecting moral, and it's really affecting productivity because the time and energy that they should spend working, they're spending on worrying about, you know, their jobs and trying to figure out how to cope with this. So, Kelly, what are you hearing?

FIELD: Well, I think, in particular, the research community is feeling pretty discouraged. I mean, over the years, first, we had a doubling of NIH budget, but since then, there's really been a declining investment in federal research at universities. You know, they still get about two-thirds of their research money from the federal government, which is why this would be so significant, but even some very deserving grants are not getting awarded, now. I think it's about only the top 12 percent are getting the grants and, under this, it would only be the top 10 percent, so we're seeing some really, really good projects not getting funded.

And there's a big concern that this could have an effect upon our competitiveness and upon the, you know - our ability to discover cures for certain diseases. And also concern that some young researchers may be discouraged from going into these fields because they think that there's so little of a chance that they're going to get funding.

MARTIN: And, Emily, a final thought from you, as well. You know, during the State of the Union address, you know, you're reminded that President Obama talked a lot about education at all levels, particularly talked up the importance of early childhood education, so that had to be exciting for people who are in that field and that you have this. So what are you hearing about the morale question out there?

RICHMOND: Well, it's interesting. I think educators feel like they've been in a holding pattern for so many years, stretching back even before the recession. The question being, what's going to replace No Child Left Behind? Where are the dollars going to come from for the massive initiatives that have been pushed, whether it's more early childhood education, college and career readiness? And I think there is a degree of frustration that, for so many years, schools are continually being asked to sort of cut their coat to fit the cloth that, at the same time, they're supposed to be giving kids better coats.

MARTIN: Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was here with us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Also with us, Kelly Field. She is a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

RICHMOND: Thank you for the opportunity.

FIELD: Thanks for having me.


MARTIN: Coming up, sure, being bullied can make kids really unhappy, but new research suggests that the effects can last for years, even into adulthood. And that is especially true for those who were both victims and bullies themselves.

WILLIAM COPELAND: This kind of small group of bullied victims had depression, suicidality, anxiety and this is over 10 years after we first started studying them in childhood.

MARTIN: We'll talk about the bully effect. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.