Budgets and Children: A Total Disconnect

Two recent reports highlight the disturbing chasm between the irrefutable evidence of the need for more investment in children -- particularly low-income and minority children and young children -- and Congress' insistence on ignoring it.

Yesterday, the American Association of School Superintendents (AASA) released an eye-opening report on the implications of sequestration. That mouthful, which means, in essence, the intent to arbitrarily chop federal programs across the board unless Congress quickly identifies a better plan, portends dire consequences for people, communities, agencies, and organizations across the country.

Among the headlines with respect to cuts to education funding:

• The broad, blunt cuts of sequestration will reduce funding to the U.S. Department of Education and Head Start by an estimated $4.5 to $4.8 billion.
• Sequestration would roll back Education Department funding to pre-2003 levels, impacting between 8.9 million and 9.4 million students.
• Potential job losses are projected to be between 74,600 and 80,500, and the cuts come as schools and colleges enroll 5.4 million more students than they did in 2003 and the costs of K-12 services have increased 25 percent.

As is often the case, students, teachers, and schools with the most need will suffer most. Higher-poverty schools will be hit the hardest, because they rely most on federal funding (e.g., Title I funding may account for up to 50% of some school districts' budgets). And personnel and professional development will see particularly sharp cuts. This is a formula for disaster: rising enrollment (a growing population of children with increased needs) + fewer resources (severe cuts) + less support for teachers + higher expectations (federal education policies that ramp up pressure to perform).

These severe reductions come on the heels of and compound several years of recession-induced state-level budget cuts. And they fly in the face of proclamations from both the Obama administration and members of Congress that we must achieve more if we are to prepare students for the 21st century and take back the American Dream of opportunity for all. Yet a disturbing number of lawmakers are not discussing sequestration and admit to knowing very little about it. This turns the term "fiscally responsible" on its head.

Moreover, sequestration, if it happens, will be applied to a federal budget that already invests less in children than any other in recent decades. The 2012 Children's Budget report recently released by First Focus, the Brookings Institution, and the Urban Institute, observes that total spending is down 8 percent just this past year, and more than ten percent over the past two years. "For the first time since [First Focus] began its budget analyses in 2008, "discretionary" spending (the budget decisions made by Congress through annual appropriations bills) on children has declined for two consecutive years. Children's Budget 2012 observes that less than 8 percent of the federal budget is invested in children."

As AASA President and Fort Smith, Arkansas superintendent Benny Gooden pointedly notes, "the blunt cuts of sequestration run counter to the widely stated and broadly supported goal of putting our nation on the path to economic health and well-being." The same can be said of our federal budgetary priorities in general. Until Congress thinks broader and bolder, our nation's future is in jeopardy.