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Fiscal Cliff May Force Some High Schools to Close

Rural schools and those serving low-income students would be hardest hit by automatic spending cuts.

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Rural, low-income school districts would be hardest hit by automatic spending cuts.
Rural, low-income school districts would be hardest hit by automatic spending cuts.

If Congress goes off the so-called fiscal cliff, federal funding for K-12 education programs will go along with it—but high schools in some districts will see their budgets fall further than others.

Technically called sequestration, the cliff refers to a package of mandatory spending cuts and expiring tax credits totaling $1.2 trillion. Those cuts will kick in on January 1 if an alternative deal is not reached, resulting in an 8.2 percent decrease in federal education spending.

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But rural districts and those serving low-income students will see a bigger chunk taken out of their budgets, according to a November report by the American Association of School Administrators.

"Some districts would apply the sequester to less than 1 [percent] of their operating budget," the report notes. "While poorer districts (whose operating budgets can have upwards of 50 or 55 [percent] of their budget from federal dollars) would apply the sequester to more than one‐half of their entire budget."

On average, federal dollars only account for roughly 12 percent of a district's budget, but that figure climbs as high as 85.5 percent at Greensburg School District in rural Kansas. Other districts that would be hit particularly hard include Warwick Public Schools, New Town School District, and Twin Buttes School District in North Dakota, as well as the Santa Cruz County Regional School District in Arizona. Federal funding makes up more than 70 percent of the budget for each of those districts, according to the report.

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The automatic cuts triggered by the fiscal cliff would force layoffs of teachers and staff, increase class sizes, and reduce professional development for educators and after-school programs for students at some schools, according to a July report by the AASA. They would also take a chunk out of Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high percentage of low-income students.

"My greatest fear is that with these additional funding cuts our supports will disappear," one district administrator from Georgia told the AASA, noting that his district used Title I funds to implement college and career pathways, helping to improve graduation rates by 35 percent.

"Without these supports I question if the growth/improvement we have achieved will be sustainable," the administrator noted. "It will take more time and consistent resources to break the generational cycle of poverty and low academic expectations in our community."

At districts such as Greensburg and New Town, which get the bulk of their funding from the federal government, the impact could be more drastic than layoffs or program cuts.

"Beyond a mere cut, their level of reliance on federal funding forces school leaders to consider the very stark reality of having to close their doors," the November report warns.

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