With Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives and Democrats in the U.S. Senate unable to enact a continuing resolution to temporarily fund the federal government, the nation experienced its first federal government shutdown since January 1996. The effects were immediate—federal employees were sent home, federal parks were closed, and the ripple effects began in other areas of the nation’s economy.
In education, some of the quickest impacts were felt by Head Start programs, which fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and promote the school readiness of children ages birth to five from low-income families. According to the National Head Start Association, as many as 19,000 children could be left without Head Start services as twenty-three programs in eleven states did not receive their annual federal grant on October 1. (See articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post for more coverage on the shutdown’s impact on Head Start programs.)
At the U.S. Department of Education (ED), more than 90 percent of staff—approximately 4,000 people—were furloughed during the first week. Among those exempted were individuals responsible for the “obligation, payment, and support of student financial aid as well as other authorized payments and obligations,” according to ED’s “Contingency Plan for Lapse in FY 2014 Appropriation,” released on September 27.
The approximately $22 billion in advance appropriations for formula grants to states under Titles I and II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, special education state grants, and career and technical education will not be affected by the shutdown and will be disbursed as scheduled. “These funds,” the contingency plan notes, “are normally obligated on October 1 and provide the second installment of critical funding under annual allocations for the school year that began July 1. … The Department believes that any delay in obligating these funds could, in some cases, significantly damage state and local program operations.”
Funding disbursements from other programs, however, could be affected, especially as the shutdown moves into week two. For example, ED has warned that a “protracted delay” beyond one week would “severely curtail” the cash flow to school districts, colleges and universities, and vocational rehabilitation agencies that depend on federal funds to support their services.
“Under a shutdown, the likely disruption to Department grant programs will be a potential delay in activities necessary to make competitive and formula grant awards later in the year,” the contingency plan reads. “For the most part, these employees will be furloughed. In addition, citizens and institutions seeking specific information regarding the impact of a shutdown will have limited access to information.”
One such instance of limited access to information is the nationsreportcard.gov website, which, among other things, houses National Assessment of Educational Progress results in reading, math, and other subjects. As of October 6, visitors to the site were greeting with a message reading, “Due to a lapse of appropriations and the partial shutdown of the federal government, the systems that host nationsreportcard.gov have been shut down. Services will be restored as soon as a continuing resolution to provide funding has been enacted.”
The exact date when a continuing resolution (CR) could be enacted remains unknown. Democrats say that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) could end the shutdown by allowing the House to vote on a “clean” CR that focuses solely on appropriations that contain no unrelated policy provisions—a point Boehner refuted on October 6 during an appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, saying “There are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR.”
Meanwhile, media outlets such as the Washington Post have been reporting that more than twenty House Republicans would vote for a clean CR, meaning that such a measure could pass if every Democrat joined those twenty-plus Republicans in voting for it.
Looming on the horizon is an October 17 deadline for Congress to agree on legislation to raise the debt ceiling—the legal limit on how much money the U.S. Treasury can borrow to pay the expenses the nation has already incurred. If the debt ceiling is not raised, the United States will default on its debt. As the October 17 deadline approaches, a broader budget agreement—one that would reopen the federal government while also raising the debt ceiling—is a possibility. Such an agreement could also include cuts to entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security.
“I don’t want the United States to default on its debt,” Boehner said on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “But I’m not going to raise the debt limit without a serious conversation about dealing with problems that are driving the debt up. It would be irresponsible of me to do this.”
For more information on how the government shutdown is affecting federal education programs, consult the cheat sheet created by Education Week’s Politics K–12 blog.