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 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.