Sequestration is less than 24 hours away and President Obama and Congress will be working overtime to try and reach a deal on the budget before the mandatory cuts kick in at the end of the day on Friday, March 1. Even with the urgency and pressure, it seems unlikely that there will be a deal according to the word coming out of the capitol. A sense of urgency is good. Unfortunately, it looks like it has come too late to preserve the programs that our government is providing to educate the children of our country. Programs that should not only be maintained but, according to government reports, should be expanded.
The Equity and Excellence Commission, which was created by the government to perform a review on education financing and practices to close the achievement gap within the U.S. education system as well as the gap between the U.S. and other countries, reported on February 2nd that the federal government needed to provide financing and assistance to the states to expand Pre-K programs. The commission’s findings show that countries with the highest rated education systems provide universal access to early childhood education and that the U.S. needed to do the same in order to improve its academic performance. President Obama has gone on record saying that early childhood education is one of keys to the education system and that programs for children need to be expanded. Even at a state level, Governor Mark Dayton has put an initiative in his proposed budget to expand state funding for Pre-K programs with an increase on scholarships for Pre-K students by over eight times what the state is spending this school year. If sequestration comes to pass as it is currently structured, around 33,000 children nationwide (700 of those in Minnesota) will be denied entry into Head Start next school year. That is not a step toward universal early childhood education.
Pre-K programs such as Head Start are not the only education programs on the chopping block. Special education programs would take a big hit even though that same Equity and Excellence Commission report found that such programs are already not as effective as intended and require more funding and oversight. One of the fundamental tenets of government is to provide for those who need more assistance in order to maximize achievement yet the government is looking to cut back on its already faltering programs for those students with special needs. General education funding to elementary and secondary schools would also be cut. Even higher education would take a hit as the cuts would lead to fewer scholarships for low income students.
Republicans in Congress has introduced a measure that calls for President Obama to draft a “sequester replacement plan” that could shift the cuts to programs that were exempt from the cuts in order to keep the cuts from having a severe impact on some programs. This may seem like a good idea at first glance. The only problem with the plan is that it reads as little more than political rhetoric. While the quality of the education system hangs in the balance, the plan reads more as a shift of responsibility (and, by extension, blame) rather than a plan for resolving the issues. President Obama would be responsible for drafting a plan under his own authority when all of the members of Congress, and both parties rather than just the Democratic President, have been unable to do the same. In addition, the plan also ensures that the same amount of money be cut out of the budget while putting some other initiatives, such as a tax increase to the highest income tax brackets, out of the equation. The Democratic Party in Congress also introduced a bill on Thursday that would reduce the cuts while initiating revenue generation initiatives. Both bills were voted down before then end of the day.
The fact that no one seems to want to recognize is that sequestration is not a political issue but a societal issue. Sequestration is threatening to negatively impact the education system and forcing school districts to cut programs such as tutoring programs and vocational education programs as well as the potential that 40,000 teachers nationwide would lose their jobs. Yet instead of forming a solution, the proposed plan would rather protect the highest income Americans from tax increases at the expense of educational opportunities for low income children. Rather than being stewards for the country and champions of the “common man,” Congress is looking instead to be a protector of the privileged. In addition, the blame would also be shifted to the President, and the Democratic Party, by forcing him to devise the plan when Congress is tasked with controlling the “purse” of the nation.
This is not meant to bash one party in favor of another. The simple fact is that all politicians, regardless of party affiliation, are responsible for sequestration. It is not a matter of politics. It is a matter of protecting society and performing the basic duties of the government. Instead of taking on the problem and reaching a solution, however, Congress is looking for a scape goat. Politically, it is more important to the members of Congress to have a central figure to point their finger at and shift blame to than to perform the duties that has been entrusted to them by the voters. They are proving that they are more interested in protecting their own money by foregoing tax increases than in ensuring that a young child with autism receives the education and support that she needs to maximize her opportunities as she grows to adulthood. It is more important to protect the income of those who can afford to contribute to political campaigns than it is to provide the greatest education opportunity to a child from a family that has to worry more about putting food on the table than on contributing to multi-million dollars bids to be elected to Congress. The same children that are facing the stark reality of being denied access to early childhood education are the same children that will be the stewards of the country in the future. Unfortunately, the political grandstanding of the present is endangering the real leadership of the future.