The sequester is not an abstraction

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A hard examination of the realities of sequestration moves the conversation from an abstract discussion of ‘what-ifs’, to a very tangible set of economic realities that mean that, even as you are reading this, budget directors, in the midst of finalizing 2013 – 14 academic year budgets, are being forced to plan for a shortfall that has been estimated at $1.3 billion nationally and will have very real impact on school programs in the fall.

The fact that spending on education is considered ‘discretionary’ is, in itself, cause for concern. We have written in this publication in the past about the crisis in STEM education and the drastic impact that reductions in federal aid have had on the mandate to improve science and mathematics teaching in American schools. The American Association of School Administrators has estimated that the reduction of federal funding will result in serious interruption in education services for underserved and underrepresented populations including women, Latino and African-American students.

Instead of investing in our children’s future, the spending cuts would hurt students of all ages across the United States. The indiscriminate cuts would slash funding that helps some of our youngest children succeed, cut funding for teachers, and reduce grants and work-study programs. Among other education programs, the sequester would cut more than $400 million from Head Start, a program that provides at-risk preschoolers with education, health, nutrition, and family-support services. These cuts would force roughly 70,000 young children out of the Head Start program.


The sequester would also slash nearly $725 million from Title I — the largest federally funded education program in the United States — meaning schools serving more than 1 million disadvantaged students would be left struggling to pay for teachers and tutors. Texas, for example, could lose more than $67 million in Title I education funding, meaning local schools could be forced to furlough teachers.

Cuts will affect millions of American students and will affect every stage of our education pipeline from the youngest children in Head Start all the way through to financial aid for young adults in college. As STEM educators we are particularly disheartened to learn of the cuts in after school programs; places where STEM students receive the real-world opportunity to apply the theories they learn in classrooms. Cuts to the science club means that fewer aspiring scientists log lab hours and learn the real work involved with scientific inquiry. Cutbacks in robotics clubs mean that the next generation of engineers and computer programmers will not get to experience the epiphanies that inspire a student to a career in the sciences and technology.

In addition, the effect on morale on an American education system that has still not recovered from the steep decline in federal and state funding over the past five years will be steep. The National Education Association estimates that our own state, New York, will lose more than 1100 teaching jobs as a direct result of the sequester. Those lost jobs will inevitably result in larger class sizes and fewer opportunities for American children.

At a time when every sector of our society including government, industry, academia, K – 12 educators and American families understands that our nation’s future depends on smart investment in education in general and better teaching in the STEM disciplines in particular, allowing the draconian budget cuts mandated by sequestration is madness. Let’s hope that our legislators will hear other national leaders and realize that the abstract concept of leverage in budget negotiations is overtaken by the reality of the concrete need to invest in our education system. The practical and strategic needs for an excellent school system in our country have never been greater.

Birney, assistant professor of Education at Pace University’s School of Education is the director and Hill, associate dean of Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, is the co-director of the STEM Center Collaboratory at Pace University in New York