Avoiding a fiscal cliff for education

There is much concern in Washington about the impending “fiscal cliff” of severe cuts to federal programs that will automatically result if Congress and the Obama administration cannot agree on a deficit reduction plan by the end of this year. Republicans and Democrats alike express great concern about threatened cuts in spending on defense, Medicare, Medicaid and social programs, all of which seem to get most of the attention in the news media. But the cuts also target education in major ways that should alarm the public, especially working families with children in public schools.

According to the American Federation of Teachers, if no agreement is reached and the automatic reductions go through, there will be an 8.2 percent across-the-board cut in federal spending for education. That would mean 100,000 fewer children enrolled in Head Start and a cut of more than 20,000 Head Start workers. More than 500,000 special needs students could lose services and school districts could be forced to lay off 12,000 special education teachers and aides. The cuts also could mean the end of Title I grants to 4,000 schools serving almost two million students from needy families, as well as 16,000 teachers and aides losing their jobs. Another 80,000 kids in low-income working families could lose child care. And the pain wouldn’t stop there.

The cuts also could hamper efforts to foster the development of community schools that offer a wide range of social and health services, as the UFT is trying to do here in New York City based on an innovative initiative that is working well in Cincinnati. The AFT estimates that almost a million fewer patients would be served in community health centers and almost 500,000 health care and related jobs would be lost.

It doesn’t have to come to this, certainly not if our elected officials in Washington start putting people before politics. Now that the election is over, Republicans in the House of Representatives should drop their stubborn opposition to all aspects of President Obama’s deficit reduction plan. Both sides can and should strive to compromise for the good of the nation, which the election results clearly show most Americans want. The public can only hope that politicians got the message and intend to act on it with the necessary urgency.

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