More Than 90 Percent of Ed Dept. Staff Would Be Furloughed in Shutdown, Will Slow ESSA Plans, Hurt ‘Impact Aid’ Schools

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UPDATE, 1:30 p.m. Jan. 21: Congressional leaders were unable to reach a deal on Friday, and the federal government officially shut down Saturday morning. Democrats, congressional Republicans and President Trump continued to trade jabs through the weekend in a bid to assign blame for the closure. As of noon Sunday, senators were slated to vote again at 1 a.m. Monday on a proposal to reopen the government through Feb. 8, possibly including an extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and disaster aid for states hammered by hurricanes this fall, according to The Washington Post. The deal, though, doesn’t address protections for Dreamers, the young people brought to the country illegally as children, and it remained unclear if enough Democrats would vote for the bill to meet the Senates’ 60-vote threshold, Politico reported.

A collision of deadlines and politics has given rise to that most perfect, and increasingly frequent, of D.C. storms: the impending government shutdown.

Current funding runs out Friday. After that, only government employees performing “essential government functions” — like the military or food inspectors — continue working. Very few employees in the Education Department, however, meet that essential standard, and that could throw a wrench into the works of some major K-12 programs.

Plans by House Republicans to vote late Thursday on a stopgap spending bill to keep the government open through mid-February were thrown into chaos by President Trump’s tweet Thursday morning that a long-term extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program should be left out of the deal.

Preserving the program that provides insurance to nearly 9 million children was the incentive to get some Democrats to vote for it, especially as other members of the party insist they will not support the bill if it does not include protection for Dreamers.

More than 90 percent of the Education Department’s 3,900 staff would be furloughed, according to a memo from the department written ahead of another possible shutdown late last year. That would be similar to the last time there was a government shutdown, for two weeks in the fall of 2013.

One of the first slowdowns in the K-12 space would be of approvals of state plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The Education Department approved 11 state plans on Tuesday, bringing the total that have passed muster to 27 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

“The shutdown of the federal government is never a positive step for our nation’s schools or our students. Most immediately, it could halt the efforts of many states working to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act as they wait for staff at the U.S. Department of Education to review and approve their state plans,” Stephen Bowen, interim director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said in a statement to The 74.

The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment on whether plans for a shutdown had changed since the December document was written, or how it could affect ESSA plan approval.

Most school districts got their big chunks of federal aid — Title I, for low-income students, and grants for students with disabilities — months ago. They’re funded with dollars Congress appropriates the previous fiscal year.

Not so lucky are the school districts that rely on $1 billion in Impact Aid, federal grants that aim to make up for districts that educate “federally connected” students, like children of military members, or whose districts contain non-taxable federal property, like national parks or military bases.

Those grants are paid with funds from the current, and as yet undecided, fiscal year.

“We’re now going into the second half of the school year and Congress still hasn’t made a final decision about how much money will be appropriated for Impact Aid,” said Jocelyn Bissonnette, director of government relations at the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

The timing of this possible shutdown is particularly hazardous for the Impact Aid districts: applications for next year’s funds are due January 31, and furloughed employees can’t answer questions from districts. That’s particularly a problem given that most districts — about 70 percent, according to Bissonnette — submit their applications a week or two before they’re due.

The Education Department office that distributes the Impact Aid grants sends out the money as it can, depending on how long each temporary extension of funding lasts. So far, about 900 of the 1,200 districts that receive grants have received some money this fiscal year, though only about half of what they should have, Bissonnette said.

“If there’s a final [funding] bill by December, school districts are usually OK. They know they’re not going to get the Impact Aid payment on October 1 [at the start of the federal fiscal year] … but when this drags really into the second half of the school year, more and more school districts really need that payment in order to make ends meet,” she said.

In extreme cases, districts have had to take out loans to meet basic needs like paying utility bills or meeting payroll. Continued uncertainty can also affect budgeting for future school years, contract negotiations, and bond issuances, she said.

“It’s really unfair,” Bissonnette said. “The level of uncertainty can be very challenging.”

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