The supercommittee’s official deadline to reach an agreement on a deficit reduction plan is fast approaching. By November 23, the committee must vote on the plan, which needs a majority of the 12 committee members’ yes votes for approval. Daily meetings held behind closed doors and few public comments from any of the committee’s members have led to speculation about what such a plan, if any, might look like.
The biggest controversies surrounding a possible agreement are reforms to entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare, and to the tax code. Democrats have traditionally worked to avoid reform to these programs that might negatively impact elderly Americans. But without the savings that such reforms could create – as much as $300 billion by 2021 for Social Security reform alone – the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says that meaningful debt reduction is unlikely.
Supercommittee co-chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) has indicated that Social Security reform is at least still on the table. But if $1.2 trillion in reforms aren’t passed through the committee or by the Democratic Senate after that, future spending will be cut by a complicated formula laid out in the debt ceiling agreement. This includes a cut to fiscal year 2013 appropriations and a further limiting of future years’ appropriations.
With powerful interest groups like the AARP pushing Democrats to limit impact to entitlement programs and conservatives still resisting proposals to increase tax revenue, dramatic cuts to programs for children may become a byproduct of this politicking. The Committee for Education Funding, in a letter to the supercommittee co-chairs last month, offered a prediction of what the sequesters might mean for education programs in 2013, including Title I and Head Start. “The failure to adopt a bipartisan balanced plan will result in untenable cuts to education programs through sequestration,” the letter said.
Those predictions do require a bit of context: Given that Congress hasn’t even begun the fiscal year 2013 appropriations process yet, the numbers are entirely hypothetical. Congress could potentially protect some programs at the expense of others by voting to change its plans for allocating 2013 funding for particular programs. And even if the sequesters are put in place, Congress will have alternatives to cutting funding. The lawmakers could always cancel the sequester by including the appropriate language in any bill that the President signs into law, as was done several times in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For example, although spending has been technically covered by a 2010 "PAYGO" law that requires Congress to enact only deficit-neutral spending, sequestrations under that law have been overridden. There are ways to get around spending limits, including emergency designations and what is effectively unlimited funding for defense spending.
If the sequestration orders are given, though, early education programs could take a hit. The sequesters affect all mandatory and discretionary spending, both defense and non-defense, with the exception of a list of specific exemptions. The exemptions include various child nutrition and welfare programs, as well as the Pell grant program, but no early childhood education programs. Entitlement programs, particularly Social Security and Medicaid, are specifically exempted from the cuts. (For more information on how the sequesters would work, check out the Federal Education Budget Project’s guide to fiscal year 2012 education funding.)
Spending cuts to early childhood education programs could be substantial, while Social Security and other entitlements would be left intact. This comes on top of already unbalanced investments that run contrary to reams of research showing the long-term payoff, not just in educational outcomes but also in our country’s economic vitality, that comes from investing in young children. (See, for example, economist James Heckman's recent letter to the supercommittee.) In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, researchers at the Brookings Institute and the Urban Institute found that federal spending on children under 19 averaged $3,660 per child; and in the same year, federal spending on senior citizens over 65 was $23,900 per person. State and local governments bore nearly two thirds of the total spent per child, and only about 4 percent of the total amount spent per senior.
Census Bureau data for 2010 found that 16.4 million children were living below the poverty line, compared to 3.5 million seniors. In spite of those numbers, state and local governments have significantly reduced their financial support of state-funded pre-K and kindergarten throughout the recession. In 2010, state spending on early education was almost $700 per student below 2002 levels, and only 24 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs nationwide, with even fewer enrolled in Head Start. Stories from around the country point to states under severe fiscal constraints. Some states are cutting even more funding for early education, exempting schools from class size limitations, and laying off teachers in an effort to avoid budget shortfalls.
If the supercommittee completes its task by making reforms to entitlement programs, programs subject to the annual appropriations process – like Head Start, Title I, and other early childhood funding – may be spared deep cuts to their fiscal year 2013 budgets. But the supercommittee’s failure could mean slashing funding for those programs unless Congress steps in. As the supercommittee fights deadlock and runs up against its first deadline this month, we hope its members will help ensure children’s well-being and education by fulfilling their assignment.
For more on early education funding at the federal level, see our special page on early ed funding for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.