The early education world is about to suffer some serious whiplash. Last week was a time of excitement and hope, as President Obama announced his proposal for expanding preschool. This week the mood is the opposite, as federal spending cuts look increasingly likely, spelling potential hardship for a wide swath of programs, including Head Start, special education services and Title I school funding.
As we explained weeks ago, attention should be focused beyond the March 1 sequester deadline. The sequester makes things difficult, no doubt, but it is not the only threat. Instead, what will affect programs over the next year is what happens just after that: What funding levels will Congress decide to set for fiscal year 2013, which ends on September 30? Looking even more long-term: How will individual programs fare under the tighter overall budget limits set in law for the next eight years?
At the moment, the federal government is operating under a continuing resolution that expires on March 27. By that date, we face either a government shutdown, another stopgap measure or the passage of a fiscal year 2013 budget that is nearly certain to show funding levels that are lower than last year’s – nearly certain because once the sequester hits, Congress has a smaller budget to work with when setting funding for individual programs. The big question is just how low the budget will go.
Everyone is waiting for signals from Congress, and speculation is running rampant. Columnists and reporters are already printing lists of programs that advocates say will be cut because of the sequester. Again, this misses the point that the more painful cuts will come later, during budgeting. A list published by the Washington Post, for example, states that 70,000 Head Start children would be “kicked out” if the sequester is allowed to stand. But the text of the law that gave us the sequester -- the Budget Control Act of 2011 -- says nothing about cuts to Head Start. It says funding already provided must be cut by 5.1 percent across the board, yet Congress hasn’t provided any funding for Head Start beyond March 27 of this year. When Congress does decide on the new Head Start funding level, it needn’t be the level dictated by the sequester. It could be more or less.
So far, Republicans who control the House of Representatives appear willing to let the sequester stand. They also show no signs of dealing with the continuing resolution that ends on March 27 until after the sequester deadline of March 1. At that point, expect to see House Republicans suggest a FY2013 budget that starts with post-sequester spending levels for the total budget, but not necessarily for individual programs. A budget that exceeds that total amount would – yes – be sequestered again. For non-defense discretionary programs, that means using a baseline with a $26 billion cut* already baked in.
The euphoria of national attention on early learning is, for the moment, being replaced by concern and near panic. But for now, the only certainty is uncertainty. As the clock ticks down, those who work in or advocate for education programs funded by the federal government still have no clear indicators of whether their programs will be cut, or by how much.
UPDATED 11:57 a.m. 2/21/13 with information on more specifics on a possible post-sequester baseline.
*The 2012 spending cap for non-defense discretionary programs totaled $489 billion. Thanks to the fiscal cliff deal, which reduced the amount of the sequester, that spending will be cut by about $26.4 billion mid-year, leaving a fiscal year 2013 non-defense spending cap in place of $472 billion.