What Will the Sequester Mean for Children and Public Education?

What Will the Sequester Mean for Children and Public Education?

Because Congress never really passed a budget last fall for Fiscal Year 2013, the United States has been operating on a “continuing resolution” that basically extended 2012 funding levels into 2013. That is until March 22, 2013, when Congress finally passed a 2013 budget that will take the country to the end of the fiscal year on September 30. 

A serious problem with the FY 2013 budget Congress just passed is that it includes the sequester, which requires cuts to federal spending shared by formula between domestic spending and defense spending. All domestic spending will be cut by 5.3 percent in 2013.

Even though the bulk of spending on America’s 90,000 public schools comes from state and local budgets, the sequester will be especially devastating to public education.  Why is that?  Historically the purpose of federal funding for public schools has been to boost opportunity in the public schools serving the most vulnerable groups of children.  Title I was the heart of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act,  passed in 1965 to drive compensatory funding to schools serving a large number or concentration of children living in poverty. The Individuals for Disabilities Education Act was created to support public education for children with disabilities. Public education Impact Aid supports public education in places where there is little privately owned land to be taxed locally---on Indian reservations and military bases, for example.

The very purpose of federal funding to education---boosting service for the neediest categories of students---means that when the 5.3 percent cut to federal funding that is being applied uniformly across all domestic discretionary programs is applied to the Department of Education, most of it will come from programs designed to serve the vulnerable.  For example, slashing Title I and Impact Aid will hurt public schools in poor urban areas, in isolated rural districts, and on Indian reservations.  Cuts may not be noticed as they are being spread across a mass of local programs. According to the Washington Post, “The effect is to reduce the scale and scope of existing programs rather than to zero any of them out.”  Cuts may be relatively invisible except for the children and families who are affected.

Title I 

Cuts to Title I during this budget year will total approximately $716 million. School districts expect the cuts to be felt primarily in the 2013-2014 school year, and some districts have begun sending pink slips to teachers and other staff who will be laid off.  The Washington Post recently reported that although the School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students for each school counselor, even before the application of the sequester, the ratio in California is 1,016—1,  Arizona 861—1,  and Michigan  706—1.  Federal funding reductions will only increase loads for counselors and other staff and increase class size as teachers are laid off.  It has been reported that the school district in Sioux City, Iowa is in the process of laying off 12 Title I reading teachers.

 Federal Impact Aid Cuts Revenue for American Indian Children

The sequester is devastating public schools on Indian Reservations across the United States. Federal Impact Aid, which is being severely cut by sequestration, pays for education on Indian Reservations, where there is little privately held property to tax for local schools.

July 10, 2013: In an eloquent NY Times op ed, Broken Promises, Former Senator Byron Dorgan describes the tragic consequences of the sequester for children at Pine Ridge Reservation.

May 28, 2013: National Public Radio reports on cuts to schools in the Navajo Nation—Navajo Schools Lose Funding Due to Sequestration Cuts.

April 19, 2013: The National Congress of American Indians details the impact the sequester will impose on Indian Country: A Call to Honor the Promises to Tribal Nations in the Federal Budget.

March 21, 2013: The Washington Post reports that the public schools in Poplar, Montana, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation will be unable to hire a needed additional counselor despite 50 percent unemployment rate among families and an increase recently in suicides by adolescents.  Summer school will be cut back, perhaps cancelled.  Poplar’s schools count on federal Impact Aid to cover 30 percent of district expenses, and Poplar also counts on money from Title I and IDEA. 

March 12, 2013: Here is a report from Wyoming— Reservation Schools’ Federal Aid Sashed in Sequestration

March 7, 2013: Sequester Hits Rez Schools.  Window Rock Unified School District, serving the Navaho Nation, has already cut 40 positions and will close three schools in response to the loss of Impact Aid and other federal funding streams.

Funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 

Because children with special needs attend every school across the states, sequester cuts to special education will be felt in wealthier suburbs as well as in the poorest places. However Congress has persistently underfunded the IDEA.  Although in 1975, when IDEA was passed, the federal government promised to pay 40 percent of the cost of federal requirements for educating children with special needs, in fact federal funding has never covered more than 19 percent. Sequester cuts to federal IDEA funding will only reduce federal support further while still requiring local school districts to provide services. While IDEA services are essential and while nobody believes our society ought to deny services for children with disabilities, federal cutbacks due to sequestration will further burden the general operating budgets of the nation’s 15,000 local school districts.

Head Start

Head Start, a preschool program designed for children living in poverty, is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services.  Because Head Start has never been fully funded, the program has excluded thousands of children across the country who qualify by income.  Cuts due to the sequester are already being implemented in Head Start programs, with reports of centers establishing lotteries to choose a handful of children from center to center who may be removed from the program back to waiting lists.  In other places Head Start centers are shortening the school year by several weeks, reducing summer programming, and cutting bus service.  It is projected that 70,000 students will lose places in Head Start classrooms this year

July 27, 2013: Catalyst Chicago reports Marcy Newberry Association in Chicago closes doors in August, leaving 230 children without Head Start and Early Head Start.  Fifty-two staff members lose jobs.

June 7, 2013: From The Nation, Greg Kaufmann describes the meaning of Denying a Head Start in Washington State.

May 15, 2013: Education Week reports Head Start Centers Feel Sequestration Pain.


The slashing of government programs through the sequester is the very definition of heartless. While advocates worked for months and sometimes years to build the political will for serving the poorest and most vulnerable children, the sequester merely applies a mathematical formula without considering the purpose or function of federal dollars being cut. Programs will dwindle or disappear. It will be important for people of faith to pay attention.

For More Information

June 2013:  Policy Matters Ohio reports on the impact of the sequester county by county.

May 1, 2013: Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network, in Cutting Education: Dumb and Dumber, describes the danger of cuts to school funding at all levels, from the federal sequester to state budgets that impact K-12 funding and Head Start.

Consult the a regularly updated page on the website of the Coalition on Human Needs, Impacts of Sequestration.