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Education Wins! Maybe: New Federal Budget Offers Sequestration Relief

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The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 passed by Congress and now on President Barack Obama’s desk has been widely understood as an end to the across-the-board cuts to federal funding known as sequestration, which has had a significant impact on the education of American Indian students from Head Start through college. It is not.

The budget act, negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, sets overall federal discretionary spending for fiscal year 2014 and 2015 at just over $1 trillion for each year. Over the two years, the agreement provides $63 billion in sequester relief in that the budget for discretionary spending is $63 billion higher than it would otherwise have been, thereby eliminating $63 billion in federal funding cuts such as those that went into effect last March.

Had Congress not taken action to reduce the funding cuts imposed by sequestration, new automatic across-the-board cuts—in addition to the cuts made earlier this year—would have gone into effect in mid-January 2014, a prospect that had educators of American Indian students, even those who said they could get through the 2013-2014 school year, seriously worried. United Tribes Technical College President David Gipp said when the first cuts went into effect, “I don’t know that we can afford to have another sequester of 5.2 percent or more for next fiscal year. That’s where our fear lies at this point.”

Head Start programs across the country have already taken a significant blow. Arizona Head Start Association Director Stephen Honeyestewa explains that programs have had to let staff go, reduce the number of classrooms and sometimes go from full-day to half-day programming. With the new budget, he says, “I hope we’re able to get back to our previous funding level in order to provide premium services to all families and particularly to Indian families who need them.”

One of the 2013 cuts that took the highest toll on American Indian education was the reduction in Impact Aid, federal aid to school districts that cannot collect large revenues from property taxes because much of the land in the district, such as Indian reservations and military bases, is owned by the federal government and therefore tax-exempt.

John Forkenbrock, executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, says, “We are arguing that Impact Aid for 2014 should be restored to pre-sequestration levels. Impact Aid schools were among the first victims of sequestration in 2013 and have suffered through this for one and a half years; other schools [whose programs are funded up front] are just beginning to see the effects.”

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Sequestration relief, unlike sequestration itself, is not an across-the-board matter. “The question is how much of the $1.01 trillion 2014 budget will be allocated to the Department of Education and then how much to each line item,” says Forkenbrock.

The concern is shared by Sally Aman, spokesperson for the National Head Start Association, who says, “We hope to recoup as many dollars as possible on behalf of all Head Start children. Ideally we would get our entire funding restored.”

Who gets how much will be decided in negotiations by the House and Senate appropriations committees in the course of the next few weeks. Krista Thompson, communications director for the National Indian Education Association says, “For the funding that is replaced, appropriations subcommittees will decide on where and how much of the 302(b) allocations will be programmatically distributed.”

Gipp says that he is still waiting to hear a definitive interpretation of what the bipartisan bill holds for tribal colleges. “If cuts still come, we will still suffer.” He says his hope is that Indian education will not be cut at all, noting that the National Tribal Advisory Committee has been advocating that tribal programs be exempted from sequestration altogether. The appropriations bills must be approved before the continuing resolution that is funding the federal government now expires January 15.

Whatever the results of appropriations negotiations for FY2014 and FY2015, the federal funding cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 for 2016 through 2021 are still in effect. Sequestration will continue as planned, with the one difference being that in order to make up for sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015, the across-the-board cuts will be extended through 2022 and 2023.

Forkenbrock says he believes that in the end the House and Senate “will have to get rid of sequestration altogether because it is not workable.”

But that would take a different act of Congress.