Fiscal Cliff Ignites Education Activism As Poorest School Districts Stand To Lose The Most

Fiscal Cliff Ignites Education Activism

Juandiego Wade is worried.

As vice chair of the Charlottesville City School Board in Virginia, he's responsible for the well-being of its 4,000 students. And if Congress doesn't come up with a solution to upcoming automatic budget cuts soon, his students may feel the loss. "We've already been cut to the bone," Wade said. So with the estimated reduction of $350,000 to his district's budget, it's hard to see what else can go before cutting teachers. Charlottesville may have to fire four teachers, special education programs, and help for delinquent students.

As the federal government faces what's become known as the fiscal cliff, education advocates are lobbying, organizing and campaigning to protect their programs. On Wednesday, the National School Boards Association trotted out school board members, including Wade, on a conference call to make their case.

"Our state got a lot of attention during the last election. we got a lot of visits from all the politicians, a lot of money was spent," Wade said. "We're wishing some of that is spent now on education."

Advocates said across-the-board cuts may threaten the entire network of supports for U.S. children, particularly those who live in poverty. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified before a Senate committee to warn against the cuts. "Essentially we're just playing chicken with the lives of the American people," he said at the time.

Now, as the reality of 7.8 percent cuts loom, lobbyists are stepping up their efforts -- even as legislators warned that negotiations could be lengthy. “Sit back, this is going to take a while,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told The Hill, describing a meeting with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Three federal programs critical to education -- Title I funds for poor students, state grants for special education and the Head Start public pre-school program -- would lose $2.7 billion over 10 years, predicted a Senate report based on the Congressional Budget Office projection that sequestration would slash spending by 7.8 percent. As many as 15,000 teachers and aides may lose their jobs, and 10,000 special education workers may be laid off.

Deborah Rigsby, the National School Boards Association's legislative director, put it in stark terms. "For every $1 million in federal aid that a school district receives, sequestration would cut $82,000, or more than one teacher," Rigsby said. "These cuts to our schools would be devastating and of course would impact student achievement."

Though federal spending accounts for about 8 percent of all education dollars, the U.S. contribution is larger in poorer areas. According to an analysis by the New America Foundation, large districts such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Miami-Dade rely on federal funding for more than 15 percent of their budgets. Milwaukee and Chicago use U.S. cash to sponsor more than one fifth of their schools' costs.

Smaller districts would feel the cuts even more. Greensburg Unified School District relies on the federal government for 85.5 percent of its revenue, and would lose a full 17 percent of its budget. St. Bernard Parish School District in Louisiana counts on the feds for 65.5 percent, and would lose 13.1 percent of its revenue.

"There are districts that are going to be hammered, and they're all high-poverty districts," Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist with the American Association of School Administrators, told The Huffington Post. Hunter is meeting with Capitol Hill staffers and asking his members to contact their government representatives to urge them to work out a deal. "We're just saying don't cut education any more than anybody else, but also try to avoid the deep cuts of sequestration that don't take into account the various value of programs," he said.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, encourages teachers to meet with their congressional representatives, said Mary Kusler, the NEA's federal advocacy director. "We have been using this looming threat to show the need for Congress to act and come up with a balanced deal to avert calamity on America's schools," Kusler said. "We will be running a pretty extensive strategy around this."

That strategy involves lobbying and "grassroots pressure." Kusler urges local affiliates to hold press conferences and government meetings, and she has been meeting with congressional staffers. NEA members, she said, worry about things like tax reform and Medicare cuts, since cuts to federal aid for health care could ultimately defund education. "It squeezes the pie and puts K-12 education at risk," she said.

Ann O'Leary, a director at the Center for the Next Generation, is using the time between the election and the fiscal cliff to launch a new campaign, "Too Small To Fail." The campaign, which includes television advertisements and social media, seeks to "create a movement," O'Leary said, that brings together the many issues affecting children: education, social mobility, healthcare and parental workplace flexibility.

"One of the things that's frustrating is when you get to very large debates about the fiscal cliff and entitlement reform, often children's advocates and women's advocates are sidelined," O'Leary said. "They're not part of the main conversation. We're trying to change that."

While Social Security and other entitlement programs are sure to be the focus of congressional negotiations, O'Leary said, things like education could be ignored -- even as children face skyrocketing poverty rates. "We have a social compact for seniors and not for kids," she said.

To kick off the campaign on Wednesday, the group began airing advertisements on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. One advertisement features a shot of a child drowning in water, flailing as bubbles escape his mouth. "Can't watch one child in danger?" the text across the screen asks. "You do it every day. Stop watching."

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