The uncertainty has been hard on school systems that are heavily dependent on the impact funding, such as the 2,600-student Douglas district in Box Elder, S.D., which is located near Ellsworth Air Force Base. Thirty-eight percent of its students are connected to the military.
The district stands to lose about $500,000 to $600,000 on a $21 million overall budget if sequestration goes through, estimated Loren Scheer, the superintendent.
"The unnerving part for all of us is that we just don't know," Mr. Scheer said. "The sooner [lawmakers] make up their minds, the better off everyone is going to be."
"It shouldn't take an election" to force action, he said.
Mr. Scheer said he hopes Congress won't "kick the can down the road again" by coming up with a temporary solution, which, in his view, could spell larger cuts later.
But Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington, said a short-term fix during a lame-duck session of Congress appears to be the most likely outcome.
"Even under a scenario that there's some bipartisan agreement in the lame-duck, the best-case option is that they agree on a framework and we spend the next six months" sorting out the details, he said. That would "push off the real decisions until next year."
And sequestration isn't the only postelection spending challenge lawmakers are facing. Congress still needs to pass a final budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Since lawmakers were unable to agree on a spending plan in time, the federal government has been operating on a massive extension bill since then that expires in March of next year.
In spending bills drafted earlier this year, House Republicans sought to eliminate major Obama administration priorities, such as the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation competitions. Senate Democrats sought to keep funding for most programs at current levels.
Higher Ed. Headaches
Policymakers will also have to grapple with a roughly $7 billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program. The White House and Congress will be under significant pressure not to cut the maximum Pell Grant of $5,500, analysts say.
Still, policymakers may make changes to Pell Grant eligibility. A budget proposal that has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives would trim the overall cost of the grants by refocusing them on the neediest students.
"Pell is very popular politically," said Kevin Carey, the director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, in a pre-election interview. "It's one of 15 or 20 things that defines a budget publicly. Whoever is president is going to have to find room to maintain Pell's funding."
Indeed, during the campaign, both presidential candidates made it clear that Pell Grants were a priority. Mr. Obama continually reminded voters that funding for the program had doubled under his watch. And, despite pledges to trim government spending overall, Mr. Romney singled out Pell Grants as an area he would like to expand.
Lawmakers will also have to decide how to cope with a planned rise in interest rates on federally backed student loans; the rate is scheduled to double, to 6.8 percent, next summer. Earlier this year, Congress passed a one-year extension of the lower rate of 3.4 percent--but not before a protracted, partisan battle over how to pay for the change. The issue became part of the presidential contest: Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney pressed Congress to keep the rate at 3.4 percent.
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