Sequester Harms Education and Our Economy

On March 4 Secretary Duncan joined superintendents from school districts that serve military and tribal communities, which will be hard hit by the federal funding cuts known as sequestration. (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

There has been a noisy debate in Washington over whether sequestration’s harm is real and at what point our public schools will feel the pain, but for educators outside of Washington, that’s a settled question. They’re not wasting time debating it, because some had already eliminated jobs and cut programs in anticipation of Congress’s dysfunction. Right now they are focused on figuring out how to deal with an even worse situation next school year.

This week I joined a handful of superintendents from around the country whose school districts are especially reliant on federal funding because of their locations in areas with little to no local property tax base. It is a particular shame that among the earliest and worst hurt are schools that serve large numbers of military families and those on tribal land serving Native American students.

Here’s some of what they said while visiting Washington for a conference of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

  • Window Rock Unified School District, in Fort Defiance, Ariz., serves 2,400 students in the capital of the Navajo Nation. Two-thirds are homeless or live in substandard housing. Anticipating the cuts that sequestration would make to Impact Aid and other federal programs that amount to 60 percent of her budget, Superintendent Deborah Jackson-Dennison eliminated 40 staff positions going into the current school year. Her plan for the upcoming year includes cutting 35 more teachers, 25 support staff and five administrative positions, and potentially closing three of her district’s seven schools. (Some children would face hour-long bus rides to school, on the reservation’s dirt roads.) Unemployment in Jackson-Dennison’s community exceeds 50 percent, so these layoffs due to sequestration and other budget pressures will drag down the local economy even more.
  • Ron Walker, superintendent of Geary County Schools 475

    Ron Walker, superintendent of Geary County Schools 475 in Junction City, Kan., brought letters to Congress from 1,500 members of the community around Fort Riley, appealing to them to undo the sequester and maintain critical funding for education. (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

    Ron Walker is superintendent in Geary County, Kan., which is home to Fort Riley and the Army’s 1st Infantry Division. Last year, pessimistic that Congress would act to prevent the sequester—he turned out to be right—Walker eliminated the jobs of more than 100 paraprofessionals, many of whom worked one on one with children with disabilities. Sequester compounds the pressure already on his budget, he said. “This is a slow-bleed process,” Walker said. “It’s like someone stuck needles in you and is draining your blood. You don’t die overnight. But you will die.”

  • In York County, Va., where Dennis Jarrett is chief financial officer, the district has reduced 124 positions over the last four years, he said. One of them was a guidance counselor—a tough position to keep unfilled when 42 percent of your students are connected to the military or some other branch of federal government. Parents’ deployment and frequent moves put unusual emotional strain on children. “What we’re concerned about…is the quality of life for our students,” Jarrett said.

These superintendents and their colleagues said something over and over that I know well from my days leading Chicago’s public schools: Any reduction in funding, and any uncertainty, causes managers to make more conservative decisions, which means fewer jobs.

In a recent survey by the American Association of School Administrators, more than three quarters of school district leaders indicated their district would have to eliminate jobs as a result of sequestration. Indeed, local school districts, along with states, will have to decide how to absorb these cuts.

The amount of money being cut from education programs and Head Start is the equivalent of about 40,000 teachers’ jobs. Instead of cutting jobs entirely, districts could furlough their teachers and staff for a period of time—which is disruptive for kids—or shorten the school day or year. No one here in Washington can precisely predict how they’ll cope—not Congress, not the President, not Republicans, not Democrats, not think-tanks, interest groups or the news media.

But one thing is certain: cutting $85 billion out of federal programs that support low-income students, students with disabilities, seniors, energy and medical research, the environment, national security and public safety won’t be good for our citizens, our communities or our country. And in education, where personnel costs are about 80 percent of local budgets, you can be certain that some teachers and staff won’t have jobs come September. You can’t make cuts like these without harming your people.

Am I saying there’s not money in our education system that could be put to better use? Absolutely not. I’m not in the camp that says “more, more, more” without considering what it buys you.

But rather than indiscriminately cutting the education budget, as the sequester does, let’s make smart investments. Let’s fund preschool for all children. Let’s redesign high schools to prepare students to succeed in college and our workforce. Let’s make college more affordable.

Taking an ax to America’s school budgets is bad policy. It endangers the progress our education system and economy have made in the last few years. Educators and parents get this. I urge Congress to undo this policy, which will only hurt children and our nation.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.


  1. The lesson that students learn when government cuts funding for their education is that government does not value their education. It is a very simple lesson that anyone can comprehend, and it will impact a student’s outlook on education for life.

  2. I would like the U.S. Department of Education to explain how its presence helps my children and others in school. If it cannot, its budget ought to be cut.

    Plus, I’d like to see the DOE actually audit state DOEs rather than collaborate with them to determine whether state DOEs are in compliance with federal laws. Collaboration isn’t working. Collaboration and a cooperative approach isn’t used in the securities and insurance industries–what makes those in power thinks it works in education?

  3. @Allison: Did you go to school? I’ll bet your school was well-staffed. I do not know a single school that is overstaffed. Oh, and the other fields where the money will be spent? Prison.

  4. Given the enormous amounts we spend on education in this country it would be difficult to successfully cut government spending without cutting spending on education. With that said we must be careful how we evaluate the outcomes.

    Whenever spending is cut there is a risk that student achievement will fall. This usually doesn’t happen because the teachers in the classroom know that they can’t afford to fail. Therefore, student achievement will not diminish immediately based on funding cuts. It would be a fallacy to look at this as an indication that education is wasting money. Just because we can deliver the same outcome on a smaller budget does not mean that money was being wasted. In the long run we will see the costs accumulate. Our schools will be more poorly prepared to meet the 21st century needs of students. Innovation will falter. Teacher quality will slip. As a nation we will be defeating ourselves.

    It may seem like there are no costs associated with the cuts in spending, but in most situations the basic economic principle rings true, “You get what you pay for.”

  5. I think that public schools have far too many employees, and that the government money spent on these schools can be put to much better use in other fields. There should be no debate, the money should never have been put into these poor schools.

  6. Spoiled politicians is a mild description for what is happening. Government is DISCONNECTED from what our needs (the nation) are in education. We keep hearing rhetoric from them that we need to improve our education system to keep up with world competition and yet education is one of the first systems cut. Our education system is behind in teaching computer skills at all levels. Education is our number one priority.

  7. Sadly, appealing to the conscious or plucking the heart strings of our elected officials isn’t likely to change their minds. If any of them TRULY cared about the children of this nation, we would not be where we are now. They are spoiled, narcissistic, children and need to be treated as such. The only way to fix this is to vote them out of office. Unfortunately, the election’s awhile out, so in the interim, pick up the phone, put pen to paper or type an email to your state legislators. Tell them WE will not stand for their inaction!

  8. I am a career military man and have 2 public-school kids. Public School is a state-by-state, county-by-county issue, and federal tax dollars should never be relied upon for the reason we are seeing here: Sequestration. If there were more mechanisms (tax benefits, breaks, and future credits) for wealthy businesses, individuals, and corporations to build schools, provide materials, and pay tutors, then we wouldn’t need to tax our way to our educational goals. I even emailed President Obama in his first open forum to standardize educational curricula from Kindergarten to High School, as nearly all of the subjects taught to children are finite (there is no new algebra, no new languages to learn, etc.) and that means budgets can be streamlined.
    Don’t expect politics and government to solve all of our problems. Communities can step up. How did we survive for thousands of years without highly diverse education paraprofessionals? With help from each other. We will overcome.

  9. It is a shame that our leaders are acting like spoiled children–not willing to share, not willing to give and take. Negotiation is about win-win for everyone; not one side losing everything. Everyone must win and that means everyone must be willing to give up something in order to win.

  10. Perks like golf, vacations, trips all over in our big jet that he uses to freely, then tells us to cut back on the oil we use.

  11. It is a shame that our leaders are acting like spoiled children–not willing to share, not willing to give and take. Negotiation is about win-win for everyone; not one side losing everything. Everyone must win and that means everyone must be willing to give up something in order to win. We teach our kindergarten students that. We ought to send our leaders all back to kindergarten to get a lesson in the strategy of the win-win principle. They are such poor exampe for our chidren. Grown- so-called intelligent men allowing their pride and egos to plunge our country in this unnecessary financial mess. Let us amend the Constitution so that we can stop their monthly checks, not to mention all the perks

  12. Please think of our future generations while making these decisions. Educators have enough problems to deal with having to dig deeper into thier personal accounts to educate our children.

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