Fiscal cliff would impact schools

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

If Congress does not reach a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, the nation’s schools will be among those feeling squeezed.
The cliff refers to tax increases and federal spending cuts that will occur automatically on Jan. 2 if U.S. lawmakers do not pass legislation to avoid them. Included in those cuts will be an 8.2 percent reduction in most programs funded by the United States Department of Education.
Mississippi could lose about $53.9 million in federal education money, according to a report released by the National Education Association. That total includes more than $15.2 million in Title-1 aid, money given to help schools with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Nationally, more than $1.1 billion will be cut from the $14.5 billion program.
Districts have flexibility in how they use their Title-1 dollars. The Tupelo School District, for instance, uses most of its money to fund its four-year-old program. The district is currently trying to expand that program, but could be forced to alter those plans if Title-1 dollars are cut.
Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said school districts already impacted by reduced state funding would have difficulty absorbing another reduction.
“Federal cuts at this time would make meeting the needs of our students even more challenging,” Loden said.
Most of the cuts to school districts would not take effect until July 1. Nationally, about 12 percent of school districts’ budgets are funded by federal dollars, but that total varies from school system to school system.
Districts also could be forced to pull from other programs to replace money they would lose under the automatic cuts. For instance, Mississippi could lose more than $9.8 million in special education money, but would still be legally required to offer many of the existing services.
That could mean reductions in other areas, such as teaching staff or extracurricular programs.
Also included in the NEA’s estimation would be a reduction of $14.8 million to the state’s Head Start pre-K programs for low-income children.
Mississippi’s universities would also lose research dollars and other funding, although that amount was not available. Most federal student financial aid would be exempt from cuts this year.
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com