Federal fiscal cliff to impact Pennsylvania's schools next fall

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HARRISBURG -- With the so-called fiscal cliff still in place, state officials are bracing for the possibility of diminished federal funding in the coming weeks. But although education programs rank high in the size of potential cuts, Pennsylvania schools would not see the effect until next academic year.

As the law stands, the automatic across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in January could cost the state $300 million in federal funding, according to the governor's budget office, including potential cuts of $33 million to special education and $43 million to the Title I funding for schools with significant numbers of low-income students. The cuts equate to about 7 to 8 percent for programs that are not exempt, a spokesman said.

No matter how Congress acts -- or doesn't act -- to address the automatic cuts and accompanying tax hikes, which were put in place in August 2011 to ensure deficit reduction, Pennsylvania educational programs will not be affected before the 2013-14 school year, according to the education department.

If the cuts remain, schools next year will lose revenue supporting school staff and student services, said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

"Clearly it would have an immediate impact on the ability of districts to continue serving or providing services to students," he said.

School administrators in the state are concerned that efforts to protect military spending could lead to deeper cuts in other areas, Mr. Buckheit said. They also see a problem in the across-the-board allocation of the spending cuts.

"Your professional development money is being cut the same as the money to provide services to students with disabilities," he said. "Obviously the preference would be to defer professional development before cutting services to students."

U.S. Sen Bob Casey, D-Pa., made the same complaint about the even distribution of the cuts, known as sequestration, to reporters on a conference call Friday.

"The problem with the so-called sequester is not just the substantial nature of the cuts but the arbitrary nature of it," he said. "You don't want to cut like a machine. You want to cut in a very intelligent way."

Mr. Casey said it appears more likely than not that Congress will fail to reach an agreement to avert the spending cuts and tax hikes.

In addition to education, state budget officials said federal cuts would impact the WIC nutritional program for women, infants and children and the Head Start program for early childhood development. Environmental protection and economic development programs also would be trimmed.

State budget officials have instructed agencies to plan for possible cuts in federal funding as they develop spending plans for next year. Gov. Tom Corbett detailed the magnitude of the potential losses as he spoke to reporters earlier this month during a trip to New York.

"It has a significant impact and it's hard to make a budget right now not knowing what we're going to be receiving," he said.

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Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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