Interim Day: Grim impact of fed spending cuts on schoolchildren

At the Education Interim Committee on Capitol Hill this week, the committee heard a presentation about the potential impact of the pending federal sequestration policy on Utah’s public school and higher education systems.

The sequestration policy would be enacted early next year if Congress and the president do not reach an agreement to avoid it, and the policy would mean across-the-board federal spending cuts, including cuts to federal education spending, with the intent of lowering record federal deficits.

One legislator in the interim committee meeting noted that even if sequestration is avoided, it will not necessarily mean that federal education spending is held harmless, as any such agreement to avoid sequestration is likely to come only by changing across-the-board spending cuts to more targeted spending cuts, which are also likely to hit public schools in Utah.

It was a rather grim presentation for children in Utah’s public schools, to say the least.

If sequestration is enacted, it is expected to mean cuts in federal spending on Utah public schools of between $33.7 million and $67.3 million, or a reduction in federal education funds between 8.2 and 16.4 percent. The programs that would see the largest absolute dollar reductions would be child nutrition programs ($8.8 million under the 8.2 percent scenario), special education programs ($8.2 million), and Title I funding for schools with high proportions of low-income students ($7.2 million). In other words, the lion’s share of federal education spending cuts under sequestration are going to impact disabled and poor children – those who can least afford them.

Utah’s higher education system would see a reduction of about $43.6 million from sequestration (the 8.2 percent scenario). The majority of these cuts would come from a $27.4 million cut from the University of Utah and an $11.7 million cut from Utah State University. Further, these cuts do not include cuts to federal Pell Grant aid to students (over $400 million a year), which are spared cuts only in the initial year of sequestration, but which would be cut by 8.2 percent thereafter (over $32.8 million).

The federal government’s dismal budget situation (four straight years of $1+ trillion deficits and a total federal debt expected to reach $16.4 trillion between November 2012 and January 2013 – more than $50,000 in debt for every man, woman, and child in the entire country) means that this report on the impact of federal sequestration on Utah’s education system is more than a simple academic exercise. Even if Congress and the president avoid sequestration entirely, whenever the federal government gets around to solving its budget problems, or is forced to solve them, Utah’s public schools, universities, and colleges are likely to experience a significant drop in funding.

All of this raises the question about whether Utah is prepared for this almost-certain drop in federal education spending. If not, the state ought to start preparing soon. If such federal spending cuts catch Utah unprepared, it will almost certainly mean dramatic cuts in public school services or significant (and perhaps economically crippling) tax increases … and maybe both. Utah is known as the best-managed state in the nation in part because its state leaders do not follow their federal counterparts in simply procrastinating in making tough decisions. Now is another time for Utah’s elected leaders to show what makes Utah a national leader in wise fiscal management.