Note: Post was updated to clarify the procedure for triggering a sequester.
Now that the congressional supercommittee has given up on finding at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and revenue increases to reduce the deficit, it’s looking more likely that federal early education programs – including Head Start – could face significant cuts a year from now.
Assuming Congress doesn’t find the savings on its own by January 15, 2012, and it doesn't intervene and change the law, automatic spending cuts will be triggered for fiscal year 2013, which starts next October.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that non-defense programs that are not in the “mandatory” part of the budget could be reduced in 2013 by 7.8 percent below current levels. That would include education programs such as Title I and Head Start. (A 7.8 percent reduction in Head Start funding would mean a cut of $585 million from current levels; Head Start received about $7.5 billion in fiscal year 2011.)
Of course, Congress has not yet decided how much funding it will appropriate for programs in 2012 or 2013, so we don’t know yet exactly how much might be cut from those programs. The trigger is designed so that if the supercommittee fails to reach an agreement, total appropriations funding for 2013 and each year thereafter must be held to new, lower limits than those established by the debt ceiling agreement. Because the 2013 appropriations may already be enacted by the January 2013 deadline, they must be retroactively reduced through a “sequester,” essentially ensuring that any amount above the now-lower cap could not be appropriated.
Even though the 2013 numbers are not yet known, the debt ceiling bill does require the savings to be split equally between defense and non-defense spending. Within those two categories, the bill also stipulates a formula that lowers both mandatory spending (which is determined by the number of individuals who meet the eligibility for entitlement programs) and discretionary spending (which is set by Congress each year). Pell grants, along with some child welfare and nutrition programs, are exempt from the sequesters, but Head Start, Title I, and child care programs are not, unless Congress votes to approve a law that allows additional exemptions.
And it’s always possible that Congress could skirt the cuts legislatively by cancelling the order for the sequesters, as they did several times in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But the president yesterday promised to veto any legislation that does so.
For more information on how sequestration could affect early education, see our earlier post here. Check out this Ed Money Watch post for a look at sequestration and federal higher education programs.
Check back with Early Ed Watch in the coming weeks and months for updates and more information on federal education funding.