Government Shutdown Rankles, But Has Little Effect on Colleges, Students

By Staff

From what most pundits in the world of higher ed are saying, the government shutdown will have little direct effect on college students or schools — unless it becomes a prolonged issue. The two major education areas feeling the shutdown’s effects are the military service academies and head start programs.

According to POLITICO, for example, it was a wild night of back-and-forth on Capitol Hill. But lawmakers weren’t able to reach an 11th-hour deal to fund the government and prevent a shutdown. That means at least a short furlough for a vast majority of the Education Department, which has a high proportion of workers deemed “nonessential.” So why aren’t education advocates, schools and colleges panicking? For one, most say it would take a relatively long shutdown, more than just a few days, to cause enough disruption to ripple out into schools and districts. Instead, education groups are still hammering away on the sequester – “laser-like focused,” said Mary Kusler, director of government relations for the National Education Association. It could be a quixotic task: The shutdown disputes have centered around whether House Republicans can pass a spending bill at all. The fact that the continuing resolutions up to a vote would have preserved sequestration spending levels became a secondary concern.

The high-stakes legislative back-and-forth lasted for several days. The House first passed a funding bill two weeks ago, which defunded the health care law. The Senate responded by changing the legislation to fully fund the law. The House then passed several versions of its own bill to keep the fund the government – but with several caveats: first, defunding Obamacare; then a full year delay of Obamacare and a repeal of the medical device tax; then, a delay of Obamacare’s individual mandate and the cancellation of health-insurance subsidies for Capitol Hill lawmakers, aides and administration employees. The Senate dismissed each attempt.

The U.S. Dept. of Education, however, will feel the direct effects of the shutdown. In preparation for the shutdown, the department has developed a contingency plan. In the event of an interruption or absence of an appropriation or continuing resolution, the Department, in the interim, will perform only work that is supported by permanent or multi-year appropriations, or that otherwise supports an activity that is considered an “exception” to the Antideficiency Act and “excepted” from the shutdown. As set forth in this plan, the Department would furlough over 90 percent of its total staff level for the first week of such a lapse. During this first week, we would maintain only those excepted functions related to the discharge of the duties of Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed individuals; those employees charged with the protection of life and property; and, as appropriate, the obligation, payment, and support of student financial aid as well as other authorized payments and obligations.

For a lapse occurring during the first week of October, the authorized obligations would include the $22 billion in advance appropriations for formula grants to States under Titles I and II of ESEA, IDEA Part B State Grants, and Career and Technical Education. These funds, which were included in the 2013 appropriation, 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. These funds are already appropriated and do not require further Congressional authorization. The Department believes that any delay in obligating these funds could, in some cases, significantly damage State and local program operations. Particularly in light of recent Federal and state funding reductions, the Department considers the October obligation of advance appropriations for formula grants to States under Titles I and II of ESEA, IDEA Part B State Grants, and Career and Technical Education as a necessary exception requiring a limited number of employees to work in the absence of an appropriation of separate administrative funds.

If the interruption were to last longer than one week, the Department would phase in employees only as necessary to conduct other excepted activities to prevent significant damage.

The biggest education casualties at the end of Day Two were still Head Start and military service academies. So far, about 3,915 Head Start seats have been lost since the shutdown began. Georgia Head Start programs serving another 2,422 children are set to close on Monday if the shutdown continues, and programs serving students in New York, Florida and Alabama, serving 1,172 students total, are also at risk if the shutdown doesn’t end before the week is out, according to the National Head Start Association. Head Start supporters rallied on Capitol Hill, calling on legislators to end the shutdown.

Some colleges are reporting issues with verifying tax returns for financial aid and difficulty reaching Education Department offices that have been shuttered in the shutdown. Technical assistance is a big problem for K-12 schools applying for grants as well, and one that we’ve been warned will worsen if the shutdown lasts longer.