By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer
Educator Cheryl Harshman said she is begging federal legislators to strike a debt deal before the end of the year to avoid across-the-board budget cuts that would hurt her special education students here in Howard, Tipton and Miami counties.
If Congress can’t agree soon on a plan that will save the nation $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years, then a series of automatic, across-the-board cuts called “sequestration” will take effect Jan. 2. The nation’s economy could fall off a “fiscal cliff.”
As part of those automatic cuts, an estimated $4 billion would be slashed from the U.S. Department of Education’s budget, impacting federally funded programs in local school districts, officials have said.
“That could be devastating to a school district that’s already on the brink,” said Tri-Central Community Schools Superintendent Lee Williford.
The National Education Association recently compiled a report that broke down the potential impacts, by state, using federal agency budget data.
Indiana schools stand to lose about $70 million, according to the report.
Title I and special education programs will be hit hardest. The state could lose a combined $42.99 million in funding for them, the report states.
Harshman, director of the Kokomo Area Special Education Cooperative, is worried her students will suffer because of the drastic cuts.
Right now, Harshman has a $2.6 million budget to serve students in seven school districts. She estimates she’ll lose about $200,000 if a deal isn’t reached.
“I’m not even fully funded now, and they’re cutting me even more,” Harshman said.
Further cuts would likely force her to lay off teachers and paraprofessionals and combine classes, she said.
Right now, one teacher and two paraprofessionals work with a class of about 11 students, which is already at capacity, Harshman said. If staff members are laid off, class sizes would jump to 16 or 17.
“That will make it even more difficult to work with students who have severe medical needs and physical needs,” Harshman said.
There are students with disabilities severe enough that they have to be taught how to go to the bathroom on their own and feed themselves, she said.
“It takes a lot of manpower,” Harshman said.
Western School Corp. Superintendent Randy McCracken is concerned about funding Title I programs in his district.
This year Western received $364,000 from the federal government to support programs that help economically disadvantaged kids succeed in school, McCracken said.
Those funds pay for reading specialists and Title I aides who work with children who fall behind in school.
“They provide a ton of services for our remediation programs,” McCracken said. “That’s an important component of our district right now.”
He said that’s what prepares many students for state tests like ISTEP-Plus and IREAD-3.
Eliminating those programs is not an option.
“We can’t lose those services,” he said. “They’re too valuable to us.”
The district will have to find a way to make up that money somewhere, McCracken said. But that’s nothing new.
“It’s what’s been happening in education for four or five years,” he said. “We’re doing more with less.”
In the grand scheme of things, the money Indiana schools stand to lose may not seem like much.
The cuts would be less than 1 percent of the general fund budget for Indiana schools, said Terry Spradlin, director for education policy at Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.
But schools never fully recovered from the recession that hit the country in 2001, let alone the most recent one, he said. Indiana schools have been faced with tough budgetary decisions for the better part of a decade, Spradlin said.
They’ve been laying off staff and cutting programs. The sequestration would just prompt further cuts.
“They’ve already tightened the belts,” he said. “I’m not sure there are any belt loops left to tighten it anymore.”
Spradlin said the nation needs to do something about the budget because the United States is spending more than it’s bringing in.
He’s not sure that across-the-board cuts are the answer, though.
Williford is a little more optimistic.
“Some people would be just as happy if federal funding [for schools] disappeared completely,” he said. “In my opinion, education should be a function of the state.”
If the federal government stopped funding schools and let states do it instead, local educators may have more control over what happens in their schools, Williford said.
McCracken isn’t so sure that the state would pick up the tab, though.
“It would surprise me if they did,” he said. “It’s going to come back on the school districts.”