- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Virginia teachers are joining a chorus of national educators who are imploring Congress to address the looming “fiscal cliff” and are warning that state school systems stand to lose big if nothing is done.

The Virginia Education Association and the National Education Association announced Tuesday that they are ramping up efforts to get the attention of lawmakers considering a deal on legislation to avoid the cliff by year’s end.

Failure to reach a deal by the new year would usher in broad tax increases and mandatory federal spending cuts of about $109 billion a year through 2021. NEA officials say more than $4 billion a year of that would be slashed from education, with much it coming from programs aimed at helping struggling schools, low-income students and the disabled.

“Every state stands to lose significantly,” Mary Kusler, the NEA’s director of government relations, said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters. “And, most importantly, the states that are in [financial] need stand to lose the most from this.”

U.S. Department of Education officials have estimated that mandatory cuts could strike as much as 8 percent from the department’s funding.

NEA officials estimate that going over the “fiscal cliff” would slash $1.2 billion a year in Title I grants, which are given to schools with a high number of students from low-income households. They say the reductions would cut services for 1.7 million students and eliminate 15,000 education jobs — part of nearly 80,000 education job losses that could take place.

The union also says the cuts would reduce assistance to 2002 levels for grant programs aimed at funding rural schools and recruiting and training high-quality teachers.

Funding and job losses in states are largely in line with their populations, with some states being affected more heavily due to large low-income populations.

Larger states that stand to lose the most money are led by California, which could lose more than $450 million in federal education funds next year, according to the NEA.

Other states like Texas, New York and Florida could see losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars, while every state in the country could be forced to do without significant federal funds.

Virginia Education Association President Meg Gruber argued that while such cuts might trim the federal deficit, they work to the nation’s long-term detriment by diminishing the quality of education.

“We should be bolstering our programs,” she said. “not considering more cuts.”

In Virginia, educators say they stand to lose $75 million in federal funding and 1,300 jobs, most of which would come from special education and Head Start programs.

Officials in Arkansas say they are facing more than $25 million in lost federal education funding, as well as millions more in reductions to other public programs, which could make it very difficult to balance next year’s state budget.

“Governors solve problems; Congress just votes,” Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, told TalkBusiness.net last week after he and five other governors met with President Obama to discuss the cuts. “We have to take those votes and make them work.”

Leaders in many states say they could dip into reserve funds or raise their own revenues to recover some of the lost funding, but many say their options are limited due to ongoing state-level financial troubles and local laws that could get in the way.

Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said his state will lose $164 million in education funding next school year if the federal cuts happen, and he added that school districts will have difficulty filling in even a portion of the costs because state law prevents local jurisdictions from raising school-funding property taxes without voter approval.

“The impact of the ‘fiscal cliff’ is made far more pronounced by the state’s property tax levy cap, which essentially limits the amount of revenue schools can raise locally,” Mr. Kremer said in a statement.

As congressional Republicans and the president work to reach a compromise on avoiding the cliff, national and local teachers’ union officials said they favor a plan that would raise taxes on only the top 2 percent of earners and make accompanying cuts that are lighter than Republicans want.

“It’s really high time that we made investments that strengthen our economy, and not ones that weaken it,” Ms. Gruber said. “Let’s ask CEOs and other rich Americans to pay their fair share.”

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