By Baylee Pulliam
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
America’s schools are sitting on the edge of a cliff.
A “fiscal cliff,” that is.
Put simply, it’s a perfect storm of around $600 billion worth of legislation for federal taxes and spending, including a set of cuts for some federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Education.
And if Congress doesn’t act by the end of this year, that storm will make landfall, possibly including cuts to kindergarten through 12th grade programs like teacher training, special education and help to disadvantaged students.
That “probably won’t change my classroom, simply because of what I teach,” said Tom Forkner, an Anderson High School Advanced Placement microeconomics teacher and president of the Anderson Federation of Teachers.
But it could make it tough for others, he said.
The National School Boards Association estimates almost every program in the department would lose 8.2 percent of their federal funding effective Jan. 2, should those cuts happen.
The cuts — also known as sequestration — could mean “for every $1 million of federal aid districts receive, they would lose $82,000,” the NSBA said. “And, while districts can vary widely, on average, for every 5,000 students enrolled, districts would lose about $300,000.”
In Indiana, the NSBA estimates that could mean as much as $59 million.
That would be “the largest cut to education funding we’ve ever experienced,” said Chris Boots, South Madison Community School Corporation school board president.
Nothing is set in stone yet, but, according to Ball State University economist Michael Hicks, schools “probably ought to prepare for those cuts.”
And the cuts could produce a domino effect, Forkner said. “Cuts anywhere are bad,” he said, “and they can cause other problems,” like larger class sizes, as schools reshuffle their budgets and resources.
The NSBA estimates cuts to special education grants could be more than $900 million, impacting nearly 500,000 children with disabilities.
Title I grants for disadvantaged students could see a cut of more than $1 billion, affecting close to two million students and 11,000 teachers and other staff, according to the Department of Education.
That would be “devastating,” said John Lord, principal of South Madison’s Maple Ridge Elementary in Pendleton. “Those students wouldn’t receive the help they need.”
At last count, there were 339 students in Title I programs and 820 in special education programs in South Madison’s 4,595-student district — one of many reasons the school board has passed a resolution to oppose the cuts. As of Thursday, seven Indiana school boards had passed similar resolutions, according to the NSBA.
The cuts would coincide with 46 states ramping up to more rigorous standards, requiring them to spend more to prepare for new tests, more staff training and new technology.
And when it comes to cuts, grants funding those technology and training upgrades are low-hanging fruit, Hicks said.
It’s important to remember that most funding for public schools comes from the state and local level, not the federal government.
Federal funding accounts for about only 10 to 15 percent of local school districts’ budgets, said Felix Chow, superintendent for Anderson Community Schools.
That means that while the cuts would hurt many schools, they likely “will not cause a chaotic panic,” he said.
And, if the cuts are made, there would be time to plan. For the most part, schools wouldn’t feel the pinch until the 2013-2014 school year, said the NSBA.
In the meantime, Congress has a few weeks to put the brakes on sequestration. But the “fiscal cliff” is not an “if,” but a “when,” Hicks said, and fat will need to be trimmed somewhere.
“We can do this now, on our terms,” Hicks said, “or we can do it later at the will of our creditors.”
The problem with education spending, he said, is that “right now, we have roughly the same education outcomes as we did 40 years ago, but at twice the price. What we have to do is find the parts that aren’t working, and make cuts there.”
Find Baylee Pulliam on Facebook and @BayleeNPulliam on Twitter, or call 648-4250.