Within days, severe budget cuts are slated to hit nearly every federal program — including special education and other disability supports — and there’s no sign of a deal on the horizon.
The sweeping automatic spending cuts will take effect March 1 unless Congress acts. For people with disabilities, the across-the-board reductions are expected to touch everything from employment assistance to housing programs, education, mental health initiatives and research dollars.
The funding chop is coming under a process known as sequestration, which was triggered in 2011 after Congress failed to reach a budget deal. The cuts were designed to be so dire that neither political party would want them to go through and the two sides would be forced to reach a deal. So far, however, that has not happened. Lawmakers already delayed the cuts once when they were were originally scheduled to take effect in January, but now hopes are dimming that another deal with be struck to avert the reductions.
“I’m growing increasingly pessimistic that we will be able to avoid sequestration, at least before the March 1 deadline,” said Lindsay Jones, senior director for policy and advocacy at the Council for Exceptional Children, which lobbies on behalf of special educators. “The two sides just seem incredibly far apart.”
A proposal to avert the sequester late last week from Democrats did not gain much traction and now Congress is away from Washington this week following the Presidents Day holiday, with no serious talk of a deal.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama again implored lawmakers to act saying that the automatic approach of the spending cuts is “not smart,” “not fair” and that it will “hurt our economy.”
But Republicans seemed unswayed.
“Once again, the president offered no credible plan that can pass Congress — only more calls for higher taxes,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement in response.
If sequestration does take effect, housing assistance provided to about 125,000 Americans — including those with disabilities — would be at risk, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan told senators last week.
Meanwhile, $160 million would likely be cut from vocational rehabilitation leading to longer wait times for employment support services and larger caseloads, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified at the same Senate hearing.
Federal funding for special education programs may be chopped by nearly $600 million, Duncan said, putting the jobs of 7,200 teachers, aides and other staff supporting students with disabilities in question.
Though most schools would not be immediately impacted since funding for this academic year has largely been dispersed already, the timing is critical, said Jones from the Council for Exceptional Children. That’s because schools are currently planning their budgets for next year and may be forced to make decisions about layoffs, scheduling and program funding that could not be undone even if sequestration goes into effect for just a short time.
“Schools will be forced to make choices that are not being made based on what’s best for students,” Jones said. “It will be hard to undo.”