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In budget cuts, low-income students suffer more than wealthy ones

For America's 98,800 public schools, it's been a tale of two sequesters. In Virginia's Loudoun County—the wealthiest county in the U.S.—the automatic budget cu
Sequestration Education - Suzy Khimm - 08/30/2013
Students and parents protest outside the office of Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale on July 11, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.

For America's 98,800 public schools, it's been a tale of two sequesters.

In Virginia's Loudoun County—the wealthiest county in the U.S.—the automatic budget cuts have "meant hardly anything" as its public schools barely receive any federal support, explains school district spokesman Wayde Byard.

Less than two hours south in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, it's a different story.

When Harrisonburg students went back to school in August, there were fewer teachers and staff to greet them: The district lost an English proficiency teacher, a school social worker, a Head Start teacher, and a teacher's aide when sequestration cut $400,000 from the school budget, according to Harrisonburg school superintendent Scott Kizner. The cuts come to a district where 70% of students qualify for a free school lunch, and more than 40% speak English as a second language.

While both school districts have to absorb the same 5% cut to federal education funding, that doesn't mean they feel the reductions equally. Title I funding, the largest federal education program, is doled out according to the proportion of low-income students in any given district. Schools in those areas also tend to rely far more heavily on federal aid because they receive less revenue from local property taxes.

As a result, sequestration has tended to hit schools with low-income students harder than those with wealthy students, disproportionately affecting schools in highly urban or rural areas that have higher poverty rates. While school districts receive 10.5% of their funding from federal sources on average, there's tremendous variation between states and within them: Federal aid makes up less than 1% of Alexandria, Virginia's $800 million district budget, but it's nearly 60% of the funding for Window Rock, Ariz., an impoverished Native American reservation.

"The districts most affected by these cuts are the ones who can least afford it," says Dan Domenech, president of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. Domenech's group recently polled 541 superintendents from 48 states about the automatic budget cuts: About half of the respondents said they had laid off instructional staff and increased class sizes to absorb the cut; 46% said they put off technology purchases and 32% said their school districts put off textbook purchases in response to the cuts.

It's been impossible, though to gauge the full impact of the sequestration on schools nationwide beyond anecdotal and scattershot data. Before it took effect, the Obama administration warned that the cuts could put nearly 10,000 teachers and aides' jobs at risk. But the Department of Education has not released any figures showing what the actual impact has been. "It's an ongoing domino effect so it’s not easy to acquire the aggregate national number," DOE says.

Cuts lead to tough decisions: Shuttered schools, delayed book purchases

One thing is clear: Though the cuts officially took effect in March, the pain from most of the Title I cuts has only just begun, as the reductions were incorporated into 2013-14 school budget. "Anyone who thinks it's not having an adverse impact needs to spend more time in our school system," say Kizner, the Harrisonburg superintendent.

Some school districts have been able to cushion the blow of federal cuts with other sources of revenue. But other districts have even more dramatic cuts to absorb: Schools on tribal lands and federal land near military bases receive "impact aid" from Washington as a substitute for local property taxes. In Arizona's Window Rock, the capital of Navajo nation, a school district serving 2,600 students was forced to cut 35 teachers and shutter three schools as a result of a $1 million loss in federal funding, according to Education Week.

The diffuse impact of the cuts helps explain why there hasn't been more of a national outcry about the education spending reductions. Moreover, some vulnerable districts have been able to make up for the federal cuts with aid from state and local governments, whose finances have generally improved from the worst of the recession.

"As the federal cut is happening, state budgets are improving, and they account for about 45% of education funding," says Michael Griffith, a finance analyst for the Education Commission. "In Colorado, there's additional money, it still isn't as much as people would like, it's enough to offset federal cuts."

Nationally, state level K-12 spending increased by about 2.5% from fiscal year 2013 to fiscal year 2014, according to the National Council of State Legislators. And as the housing market has bounced back, local governments' finances have also improved. Kizner, for one, is grateful that Harrisonburg's local government has chipped in more funding to keep the school district from making more drastic reductions.

Other districts have taken special care to prepare for times of austerity.

Fort Smith, Ark., is another high-poverty district where most students qualify for a free lunch. The district relies more heavily on federal funding than the average school district—it makes up about 12-14% of the annual budget—but state funding has also been stable. "We saw this coming two years ago, so we started reserving funds from state and local [sources], so it wouldn't disrupt things," says superintendent Benny Gooden.

Gooden cautions, though, that it's only a temporary fix to sequestration, and the belt-tightening can't continue without adverse consequences for Fort Smith's schools and their students. If Congress is unable to pass a bill undoing sequestration, "we'll have to lay off people," Gooden says.

"Going through four bad years, you've cut every bit of fat you can," adds Griffith. "Anything they cut now—it's going to have to be core teachers."