Sequester Cuts Are Dumb, Education Cuts Are Dumber

Jeff Bryant

Cuts to government spending like the now-reviled “sequester” are not only “dumb” as my colleague Robert Borosage explained this week. They are literally making us dumber.

What’s dumb is to cut money for air traffic controllers and endanger airline passengers and relegate them to long waits for delayed flights.

What’s even dumber is to cut funding to Head Start and other education programs that ensure the nation’s children have learning opportunities that vastly improve their futures and our national prosperity.

Unfortunately, cuts to essential funds for educating our children aren’t limited to the dreaded sequester. The assault on spending is pervasive in all aspects of education budgeting at every level of government. Even worse, spending cuts are aimed at the very areas where we should be investing the most.

If you’re of the opinion that “money doesn’t matter” in relation to the quality of education, then you’re horribly misinformed. Indeed, anyone advocating for better education in America should put the funding cuts at the top of their list of policy mandates to protest against.

Stupid Sequester

Anyone advocating for good schools for all kids should be particularly alarmed at the damage being done by cuts to spending resulting from imposed across-the-board budget cuts called “sequestration.”

Sequester cuts are especially damaging to schoolchildren who are the most vulnerable and critically in need of government funding.

As Think Progress and other news outlets reported, the sequestration resulted in numerous cuts to programs that give poor children access to early education.

  • In Indiana, “At least two Indiana Head Start programs have resorted to a random drawing to determine which three-dozen preschool students will be removed from the education program for low-income families.”
  • In Tennessee, “Cuts have affected the Head Start program in several ways,” including that “bus transportation will discontinue.”
  • In Washington, there will be “dollars lost” from a “child care food program,” a program “for serving kids with disabilities,” and pre-K education. “Spokane Head Start currently serves 900 families and there are a thousand more on the waiting list,” but cuts are on the way nevertheless.
  • In Pennsylvania, cuts to Head Start threaten “lunch and snacks to the children . . . cleaning or other supplies . . . [and] fuel for Head Start’s buses.”
  • In Palm Beach County Florida, transportation to Head Start centers “would be eliminated,” affecting “roughly 400 of the 2,296 children enrolled” and resulting in “the elimination of 14 jobs.”
  • In a community in New Jersey, fewer children will be able to enroll in Head Start.
  • In Missouri, a Head Start program announced that nearly 200 fewer children would be enrolled next fall.

Of course, funding targeted to families and very young children isn’t limited to Head Start. Parents with little children need day care, too. According to an article at The American Prospect, “Quality child care costs more in most states than tuition at public universities. In 22 states and D.C., the average cost of infant care in a center was more than the median rent in 2012.”

Nevertheless, “states cut services for the poor, including the child-care subsidies. A study by the National Women’s Law Center found that families in 27 states were worse off in 2012 than in 2011″ (emphasis original).

In addition to Head Start and child care cuts, according to a report from Reuters, schools serving “school districts near Native American reservations, military bases and other areas where property tax revenue is kept low by a federal presence are getting ‘severe spending cuts’ equaling $58 million.”

These cuts are especially devastating to states like New Mexico that have large percentages of Native American students. In New Mexico, federal spending is “12.8 percent of the state’s gross domestic product,” according to the Reuters article cited above, and federal aid can provide as much as half or more of what a school gets to fund its programs.

Schools that educate the children of our military families are also victim to the sequester cuts. School districts near military bases report the need to furlough teaching staffs, cancel Friday classes, and shorten school years. According to Reuters, this affects schools in New York, Wisconsin, Texas, and California.

Sequestration cuts also have had negative impact on the amount of money available to schools that get federal Title I money for educating children from low-income households, money for teaching children with learning disabilities, and funds for rural schools and teaching jobs.

  • In Kentucky cuts stemming from the sequestration have reduced Title I federal funding by a double-digit percentage, cut money for school lunches by 7 percent, and reduced funds available for educating students with learning disabilities.
  • North Carolina schools stand to lose $25 million in funding and 350 teaching jobs due to sequestration.
  • In Montana, rural schools are getting particularly hard hit, losing millions of dollars in funding.

The Center for American Progress has a great chart and ongoing news feed tracking the effects of the sequester.

Wait, It Gets Worse

Sequester cuts come on top of other massive budget cuts that rolled out to the nation’s children over many years. The cuts often target education programs that have the most potential for enhancing the future lives of students – particularly in their early years.

The evidence that high-quality early education gives children the foundation they need to succeed is “overwhelming,” according to studies cited by the U.S. Department of Education. Young children who receive high-quality, full-day preschool experience “crucial benefits in high school graduation rates, employment and avoidance of criminal behavior,” according to “the best scientific evidence.”

Numerous studies have found “High-quality preschool appears to propel better outcomes by enhancing non-cognitive skills such as persistence, self-control and emotion regulation.” That’s why, as The Huffington Post’s education reporter Joy Resmovits recently reported, “several police chiefs have highlighted the need for more and better preschool as a tool for long-term crime reduction.”

Despite the enormous benefits of early childhood education, government policy makers over the years have chosen to cut these programs.

This week, a new report from the National Institute for Early Education Research nieer.org published its annual research study for 2012, which found, “State funding for pre-K [education] decreased by over half a billion dollars in 2011-2012″ – the largest one-year drop ever – enrollment in state pre-K stalled, and “state funding per child fell to $3,841″ – well below the inflation-adjusted national average of what states paid ten years ago.

In a good review of the research, a reporter at Education Week noted,

  • 27 of 40 states cut early childhood programs – 13 by 10 percent or more – and only 12 states increased funding per child in 2011-2012.
  • Only 15 states plus D.C. provide “enough per-child funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards.”
  • Pre-K enrollment increases are not enough to offset population growth and increase the percentage of children served. Only “4 percent of 3-year-olds and 28 percent of 4-year-olds were served in state-funded pre-K.”
  • Head Start programs boost enrollment levels to 41 percent of 4-year-olds and 14 percent of 3-year-olds, but these levels have “stagnated.”

Money Matters

Government budgets that cut education spending are deeply harmful to the well-being of children. It’s a universal truth that education outcomes – as measured by achievement tests, high school graduation levels, and college completion – are strongly correlated to the level of affluence and financial investment children experience growing up.

Writing in The New York Times this week, Sean F. Reardon explained that the achievement gap in our society closely tracks the income gap, and the greater the income inequality, the more children are apt to experience an “opportunity gap” in their lives that reduces their long-term wellbeing.

“Children of the rich,’ Reardon wrote, “have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students.” And nothing education policymakers have been enacting in schools “has reduced educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income families.”

“Over the past three decades, Reardon said, the opportunity gap between students of the rich and less well-off – even middle class – families has widened – not because we’re doing such a worse job of educating less-well-off children, but “because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.”

“Not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.”

What’s needed to rectify this growing inequality is “to invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born.”

Reflecting on Reardon’s words, Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former Chief Economist and economic adviser to the Obama Administration, wrote at Salon.com that instead of cutting education funding, we should be focused on the “need to offset the impacts of the income disparities by providing less-advantaged kids with access to the enrichment opportunities they’re increasingly not getting. Quality preschool has got to be the right place to start.”

Education historian Diane Ravitch considered Reardon’s piece as well and concluded, “What have we been doing for the past 30 years? Relying on standards and testing to close the gaps. It hasn’t worked.”

What we need instead, Ravitch contended, is “parent education, early intervention, support for children.”

Yet, that is precisely what our leaders are choosing not to do.

What’s Needed Instead

It’s not too late to turn this dreadful trend around. Also this week, authors of a new book Closing the Opportunity Gap spotlighted the actions state and school district officials should take to address the nation’s opportunity gap.

“Quite simply, children learn when they are supported with high expectations, quality teaching and deep engagement, and made to feel that they are entitled to good schooling,” explained the book’s co-editor Stanford University Professor Prudence Carter. “The richer those opportunities, the greater the learning. When those opportunities are denied or diminished, lower achievement is the dire and foreseeable result.”

Writing at the blog site of The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, another co-editor of the book, Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center, explained, “There is no way to tease those data into showing that test-based accountability reform is accomplishing its key learning goals … In particular, we have failed to build capacity or increase opportunities to learn.”

“American society has the means to provide supports for communities, for families, for students, and for teachers,” Welner wrote. What’s needed is more spending that ensures “children are safe and healthy and ready to learn, that they have access to rich learning environments in schools and also in their homes and in their communities, and that they have qualified, experienced teachers.”

Cutting Education Is Bad Economics Too

Regardless of what budget austerity fans tell you about the necessity of spending cuts, cutting education is also not good economics, either.

Writing at Salon.com, economist Simon Johnson explained, “In recent decades, some families chose locations and occupations that seemed to offer a reasonable means of support and good prospects for their children. Many of these decisions turned out badly, largely because information technology (computers and how they are used) eliminated many middle-class jobs. Increasing globalization of trade also did not help in this regard. In addition, as Till von Wachter of Columbia University has documented, prolonged periods of unemployment for parents have a severe and lasting negative impact on their children.”

“Children whose families cannot provide a decent start in life deserve help,” Johnson maintained. “Imposing austerity on poor children is not just unfair; it is also bad economics. When economists, again with their dry jargon, talk about a country’s ‘human capital,’ what they really mean is the cognitive and physical abilities of its people.”

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman agreed with Johnson, writing at The New York Times this week, “We’re cheating our children. How? By neglecting public investment and failing to provide jobs.”

“What about investing in our young?” Krugman asked. “We’re cutting back there …  having laid off hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers and slashed the aid that used to make college affordable for children of less-affluent families.”

“Fiscal policy is, indeed, a moral issue,” Krugman concluded. “We should be ashamed of what we’re doing to the next generation’s economic prospects.”

Time To Address Real Causes

Once upon a time, America’s political leaders sought to resolve big problems by acting on the actual causes. Recall how government policies eventually took action on the harm cigarette smoking and tobacco use were having on the populace?

Now the nation’s leadership tends to favor policies that either ignore real causes or even exacerbate what’s making things worse.

We know our children’s education attainment is key to their future development and prosperity – and the very health of our democracy. We know poverty is to academic achievement what tobacco use is to cancer, and children’s education attainment is strongly correlated to levels of affluence and the investment they receive.

So anyone who really cares about our children’s well-being must make this priority #1: Stop the cuts. Invest in children.

Comments