After all, in a $3.8 trillion federal budget, how painful can $85 billion in cuts—the amount mandated under sequestration—really be?
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The answer: probably not as painful as the Obama administration is making them out to be, but not as painless as many conservatives are suggesting.
Crafted as part of a 2011 budget agreement between the White House and Congress, sequestration is harsh by design. The idea was to create an incentive for the two sides to reach an agreement on deficit reduction, because the alternative—across-the-board budget cuts—would be so distasteful.
But even at the outset, negotiators appear to have allowed for the possibility that no deal would be reached. The Congressional Research Service said dozens of programs are exempt from cuts under the law. They include Social Security benefits and Medicaid, as well as child nutrition programs, Pell Grants for higher education, and family support programs. The law also allows the president to exempt military personnel accounts from the cuts, which Obama has said he will do.
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Administration officials said the exemptions give them even less flexibility in carrying out the required cuts under the law, and they have been laying out dire scenarios in the days leading up to the deadline.
"To act like there's some magical thing that I could do or a superintendent or principal could do—you can't," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at a White House press briefing Wednesday. "Kids are going to get hurt. That's just the reality."
Duncan said the cuts would lead to more than 17,000 teacher layoffs—10,000 teachers and teachers' aides in K-12 and another 7,200 in special education. But that number, frightening as it may sound, is imprecise at best.
The administration said it arrived at the figure by dividing the amount of required cuts by an average yearly salary and benefits of $70,000 per teacher. But officials admit that does not mean the teaching positions would vanish overnight, because most school funding is already locked in for this academic year, and federal funding makes up 8 to 10 percent of most local school budgets.
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The sequester will present some tough decisions for local school districts. "Over the next month or two you'll see lots of pink slips go out," Duncan claimed, but school districts so far appear to be holding off.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles public school district—the nation's second largest—said sequestration would be a $37 million hit to next year's budget, which will be presented to the board of education later this month.
"We haven't determined where the cuts will come from yet," Thomas Walden said. "We do know that if the sequestration goes through it will hit our federally funded schools, that's the schools with the highest poverty, and our English learners."
In the nation's fourth-largest district, Miami-Dade, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Judith Marte estimated the sequester would cost the district $19 million. Marte said the district is fine for this school year, but next year would be a problem.
"It would impact up to 300 teaching positions going forward," Marte said in a telephone interview. "While we were good stewards this year, as it continues to go forward we don't have other $19 million to cover next year. We need to know by May or June of 2013 when we apply for our federal funds."
Officials in New York and Chicago, the nation's largest and third largest school systems, did not respond to our requests for information about their sequester plans.
Duncan claimed layoff notices are already going out in the Kanawha County School System in West Virginia.
An official there confirmed to NBC News that "reduction in force" notices had gone out to teachers and staff in the county's Head Start program, but said the pink slips were not entirely sequester-related. Head Start Director Karen Williams said she was waiting for a decision on grant applications that was supposed to have been come in December. Without it, state law required the notices now, even if layoffs do not go forward.
"I can't get anyone to make a decision," Williams said.
Meanwhile at the Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a different but equally dire warning.
"The reality is there will be harm, there will be pain and the American people will be less safe," Holder told a gathering of state attorneys general. "That's a fundamental reality the American people have got to get their heads around."
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