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Sequester And Budget Add Up To Education Confusion


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, it's hard to believe but it's been 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous letter from Birmingham jail, so it's easy to forget why he wrote it and to whom he wrote it, so we thought this would be a good time to talk about that. We'll talk about the controversy it caused then and the impact it has now. That's coming up.

But first, we want to talk a bit about education in this country. A number of people from the right and left call it the civil rights issue of this era. The dueling forces of sequestration and the president's new budget have created a confusing picture in education funding. The president is calling for more education funding in some areas. The sequester is cutting it in some areas, so we've called on NPR's education correspondent, Claudio Sanchez, once again to try to help us figure this all out.

Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: You know, in the best of times it's sometimes hard to figure out how the federal budget works in tandem with state and local resources, so how is the sequester complicating things?

SANCHEZ: In the short term, Michel, the sequestration has made a mess of what's already a complicated process, as you mentioned, the budget process. But let's look at Head Start, for example, which has gotten a lot of attention because Head Start programs right now have already had to slash five percent from their budgets to only about - what is it - about $406 million because of sequestration. Some programs are shutting down earlier in the day. A few may have to shut down during the summer and that obviously poses huge problems for poor working class parents.

Still, in the 2014 budget, Head Start would get a record $8 billion, so there's short term pain and obviously if the budget goes through and the president gets what he wants, Head Start could get significantly more money.

Now, school systems that receive impact aid also are getting really hit hard in the short term by sequestration.

MARTIN: Impact aid being...

SANCHEZ: Impact aid is for those districts that can not rely on local property taxes to fund schools because they're on federal government land or near big military bases. Those people are really, really dependent on federal aid and they're already getting hit.

Overall, K through 12 - big picture here - it's pretty much status quo. The president is not asking for a lot of money, but there's already a survey out there by the American School Administrators Association projecting that by the fall, 78 percent of school districts will have to lay off teachers and staff, not just because of sequestration but because there's really not a lot of money and states are still cutting education funding, and this poses, again, a huge problem for a lot of schools in especially states that are cutting funding.

MARTIN: Well, I promised that we would talk about what the president's budget proposes and so I do want to get to that, but I do have to ask, you know, grade school teachers - teachers are already dealing with a lot. I mean, this is the testing time, for example. Standardized testing is going on now in a lot of places, so do the budget issues affect them in the classroom? I mean, are they having to think about this?

SANCHEZ: I think it's fair to say that public education, educators, classroom teachers, staff, faculty - I mean, these are folks - and including higher ed, by the way - are under enormous stress. One reason, by the way, that even though there aren't any clear figures, for example, on lay-offs, is because we won't hear about those until late May because this is the time when school boards and, you know - are essentially putting their budgets together, in many cases because the states require it, so it's like a looming decision, but people, I think, are expecting the worst.

MARTIN: And what about college students? I mean are these federal budgetary issues affecting college students as well?

SANCHEZ: Definitely. As far as higher education, the sequester, for example, could result in big cuts in federally funded research at big research institutions. Educational opportunity grants for low income students and federal work study programs on college campuses could lose a combination of $86 million. That's not nothing to sneeze at. That could mean - I think the number I saw was as many as 30,000 students losing some kind of assistance that they desperately need, considering that tuition is going up and up.

Now, the president's budget, on the other hand, would pour $8 billion more into community colleges, mostly for job training, so it's - again, you give some and you take some away and it makes higher education folks crazy.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. He's here in our Washington, D.C. studios. So - all right - let's wheel around and talk about the president's budget in the time that we have left. Is there kind of an overall theme or overall philosophy...

SANCHEZ: Definitely.

MARTIN: ...that is reflected in this budget?

SANCHEZ: Definitely. Something that's, I think, unprecedented. Early childhood education gets enormous amount of attention and new money. Seventy-five billion dollars - with a B - over the next 10 years. The federal government is saying, or at least in the budget, the federal government would fund 90 percent, at least in the first year, of that expansion of what the president wants to do, preschool programs.

Now, eventually, by the eighth, ninth, tenth year, states would fund 75 percent of that. That's a big if, of course, because states - even though many states support early childhood education, preschool programs, there just isn't enough money out there.

Now, the administration, by the way, tends to - is saying that it's going to fund this 100 percent by raising cigarette taxes on cigarette packs, 94 cents.

MARTIN: Can they do that?

SANCHEZ: Well...

MARTIN: Do they have the authority to do that?

SANCHEZ: I think they do. Obviously they'll need the Congress's approval, so it's a big if. You know, everything that says tax, tax, tax, of course, is not very popular these days, but this is the president's response to people who say, where is the money coming from? And when it comes to such a huge expansion of early childhood to have it rely 100 percent on a big if about raising taxes on cigarettes - well, that's kind of risky.

Now, no one criticizes the president for focusing on this, of course, because, you know, up to 39 states right now are all for - and governors, Republican and Democrats alike, are very much in favor of early childhood education, preschool programs, especially for low income families. The problem is that, you know, how you fund this over the long term is going to be tricky, but I don't think anybody's criticizing the president for saying here's a good way to focus on those inequalities that begin very early on.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. What's the reason that the president's kind of - I don't think rolling the dice is quite the right, you know, phrase here, but he's clearly making a statement that this is where he wants to put a big federal footprint. What's the philosophy behind that? Why does he feel that that's worth doing and really worth fighting over? Because this is something he's going to have to fight for?

SANCHEZ: Well, part of it - it's not just President Obama, of course, but ever since going back to Nation at Risk and even President - of course the first President Bush, there was a conclusion or at least there was a lot of research that was pointing to the fact that, you know, the payoff for early childhood education, at least in the initial years - there are studies out there, dueling studies, but overall people are convinced that if you invest that money early on, you avoid a lot of problems, whether it's a kid being able to read by third grade and certainly over the long term, whether that kid even has a shot at a reasonable or a good education.

It's very complicated, but the research tends to show that that's a smart thing to do. The president is a true believer, and like I said, I don't think he's getting a lot of push-back.

MARTIN: That was going to be my final question. Whether people agree with the funding mechanism or not, is there general agreement that this is a good course for the country to take?

SANCHEZ: As far as more education, more money for education, you know, congressional Republicans simply argue that the federal government just doesn't have the money to spend on any of these things, as well-intentioned as they are, and that the increases that the president is proposing is just not going to get any support on the Hill.

And finally, though, something really noteworthy is that the biggest push-back the president is getting is from college students. College students are really afraid that the president's plan is going to hurt them over the long term, and one reason for that, the president is proposing that interest rates on federally subsidized loans or unsubsidized loans be tied to the market rate, and that versus it being capped at what it is now, 4.7 percent or so.

So, you know, this is a huge problem for the president. He's getting a lot of push-back from otherwise his allies.

MARTIN: Good. Something to keep us posted on. All right. NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez, here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, our new Washington, D.C. studios, I might add.

Claudio, thank you.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.