The nation’s top education official is warning that special education programs across the country will face “devastating” budget cuts next year unless Congress acts.

Federal education spending for students with disabilities could be reduced by $900 million next year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a U.S. Senate panel Wednesday.

That could translate to layoffs for over 10,000 teachers, aides and other staff who support the nation’s 6.6 million students with special needs, he said.

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The cuts are expected to begin taking effect in January under a process known as sequestration which was triggered last year when Congress failed to reach a budget deal. Under the plan, education programs as well as most other federal initiatives will be subject to an across-the-board spending reduction of about 8 percent.

Unless Congress acts, special education cuts would impact schools starting in the fall of 2013, Duncan said.

“We all know that there are steps we can take so we don’t have to start down this path that puts so many critical services to students, families and communities at risk,” Duncan told senators. “As everyone knows, sequestration does not have to happen and should not happen.”

If the budget cuts go through as planned, federal spending on special education would fall to 14.5 percent, the lowest rate seen since 2001, according to an estimate from the Council for Exceptional Children, a national group that lobbies on behalf of special educators.