Sequestration: Senate Hearing on the Effect on Education and New Report on Impact on Human Services

The Senate Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education  and Related Agencies Subcommittee held a hearing this morning on the effects sequestration will have on early learning, K-12 and access to higher education programs. Sequestration refers to the automatic cuts required by the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25) to reduce the deficit. Every Senator on the subcommittee agreed that indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts are not an appropriate way to balance the budget. Of course, consensus on the most appropriate way remains elusive.

Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) spoke first and announced the release of his report, “Under Threat,” which includes detailed analysis of sequestration effects on programs under the subcommittee’s jurisdiction which includes the core child welfare programs in the Department of Health and Human Services. Harkin lamented that the deficit reduction discussion to date has focused only on preventing defense cuts and has failed to adequately address the impact for many essential government services and programs that directly touch every child and family in America. For example, using the CBO’s estimate of a sequestration cut at 7.8%, he reports that state and local communities would lose $2.7 billion for Title I, special education, and Head Start alone. Throughout the hearing, Harkin reinforced his adamant opposition to an unbalanced approach of cutting that ignores the critical importance of education. 

Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) focused his objection to sequestration on his disappointment with the Administration for providing insufficient information about its potential effects. Seeking more specific analysis on the amount of cuts as well as clarity on exempt programs, Shelby expressed concern with the financial uncertainty already caused and remaining as a result of sequestration. He agreed about the negative effects of sequestration for education related programs, but cautioned against forgetting about the deficit. Disappointed that the FY2013 education budget request does not curb spending, Shelby reiterated the call for fiscal sustainability. 

In the first panel with Education Secretary Duncan, Harkin pointed out that education cuts could be as high as 17.6% if nondefense discretionary programs bear the brunt of deficit reduction, while pointing to the need for a well-educated military to operate the advanced systems of the future. Senator Patty Murray’s (D-WA) remarks focused on shared sacrifice, calling for a balanced proposal including revenue from the wealthiest Americans and cautioning against compromising our international competitiveness. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) underscored several of the points already made and added that large federal cuts will double down on local and state budgets that are already suffering. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) followed and expressed concern that sequestration would take energy away from the already tough job of school administration at the local level. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) highlighted growth across sectors over the decade since the budget was last balanced, reporting that nondefense discretionary spending did not grow, while mandatory entitlement programs grew 30% as a result of the increased health care needs of the baby boomers and defense spending increased 73% over the same amount of time. He further addressed the benefits of supplemental education services like afterschool and summer learning that enrich youth and prevent community violence. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) concluded subcommittee statements in the first panel reiterating the call for guidance to states and localities in the event sequestration moves forward. A second panel, comprised of educators, followed and generally focused on some specific examples of the local impact of sequestration.

More specifically than the promise of quality education for supporting at-risk youth through successful growth to adulthood, youth in care are known to experience poor educational outcomes. The strength of special education supports and quality academic instruction in general is of particular consequence to this vulnerable population. In addition, Head Start is a best practice social support for offering quality early education opportunities for at-risk children and community connections for struggling parents. Head Start spans education and social services in practice, but is legislatively housed under the jurisdiction of education. Absent new legislation, all non-exempt nondefense discretionary programs face the automatic sequester cuts. Following the hearing Harkin, and Murray along with Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and George Miller (D-WA) spoke at a rally on Capitol Hill to call for a balanced approach to deficit reduction.

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