From the White House to Capitol Hill, the winners in this week's elections won't have much time to savor their victories.
Even as federal policymakers sort out the political landscape, the remainder of 2012 and the early months of 2013 are likely to be dominated by divisive, unresolved issues with broad consequences for K-12 and higher education--some of which require immediate action.
Chief among them: sequestration, a series of planned, across-the-board budget cuts that are set to hit almost every federal agency Jan. 2, including the U.S. Department of Education, unless the president and a lame-duck Congress act to stop them.
And when lawmakers in the 113th Congress take office in early January, they also will confront a yawning shortfall in the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students attend college; grapple with a planned rise in student-loan interest rates; and pass a spending bill financing the federal government for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.
On top of that, federal policymakers must cope with thorny implementation questions on major policy initiatives, including dozens of waivers that eased states' obligations under the No Child Left Behind Act. And they must find a way to renew a laundry list of long-stalled K-12 legislation--most notably, renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the NCLB law--in what will likely remain a politically polarized Washington.
The work will begin well before Jan. 21--Inauguration Day. As of last week, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney had sketched out a detailed plan for how to handle sequestration, which would result in an 8.2 percent reduction to most programs in the U.S. Department of Education. While some spending would remain untouched--such as federal student loans--the key formula-funded programs on which school districts depend would be cut.
"That is going to be a huge mess" for the occupant of the White House in the coming year, James W. Kohlmoos, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, in Arlington, Va., said in an interview before the Nov. 6 election.
A lame-duck Congress is "the most difficult and challenging and confusing time" to solve long-simmering problems related to taxes, spending, and entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, said Mr. Kohlmoos, who served in the Education Department under President Bill Clinton.
Looming Fiscal Issues
If sequestration "trigger cuts" are not averted, programs aimed at equity, including those for disadvantaged students, now funded at $15.75 billion, would be cut by almost $1.3 billion, according to an analysis by the White House Office of Management and Budget. And special education programs, now funded at $12.64 billion, would be cut by about $1.03 billion.
Still, most of the reductions to education spending wouldn't hit in the middle of the 2012-13 school year, giving schools until next fall to figure out how to absorb them.
The one glaring exception: the $1.2 billion Impact Aid program, which provides money to 1,200 school districts, including those that are home to a high number of American Indian students living on reservations or students whose parents work at a military base in the district. It also helps districts that have lost tax revenue because they include big plots of federal land. Districts in the program would lose their aid Jan. 2.
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