The 5 States Most Vulnerable to Sequestration's Education Cuts

  • March 04, 2013
  • By Jake Grovum (2)
A man walks by a school in South Dakota, one of the five states that rely most heavily on federal K-12 education money. (AP)

Automatic federal budget cuts will slash more than $1 billion in K-12 education dollars this year, paring everything from Title I money for low-income students to school improvement initiatives.

The reductions in K-12 spending, part of the 5 percent across-the-board reductions in non-defense spending known as sequestration, will be particularly painful in North Dakota,  Mississippi, New Mexico, Idaho and South Dakota—the five states that rely most heavily on federal education money.

On average, federal dollars comprise about 13 percent of states' K-12 education spending. But in those five states, one fifth or more of K-12 money came from Washington, D.C. in fiscal year 2010, the most recent year for which data is available from the National Center for Education Statistics. North Dakota gets 22 percent of its education money from the federal government, while the other four states receive around 20 percent.

Local officials and the Obama administration have been sounding the alarm over the cuts. Fact-checkers have debunked U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's recent claim that teachers received pink slips as a result of the reductions. However, the federal education cuts will place an added burden on states still struggling to recover from the recession, especially since education is typically the largest single spending area of state budgets.  More than a third of all state spending was dedicated to K-12 education last year, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers' most recent state expenditure report.

K-12 education money also is a significant portion of the federal spending subject to sequestration—about 4 percent of the $500 billion on the chopping block. As a result, even a 5 percent reduction amounts to a sizable figure. For example, about $15.8 billion in Title I funding is subject to the cuts, so that spending will be reduced by about $789 million.

In addition to the K-12 cuts, sequestration will reduce federal spending on special education, higher education and other programs in the Department of Education by an additional $1 billion. Further education-related reductions will be felt in everything from rehabilitation services and disability research to rural education programs and arts-in-education initiatives.

Compounding the pain is the fact that many states have K-12 education spending levels dictated by state constitutional provisions, past lawsuits over adequate funding levels or other mandates. As the Council of State Governments' Chris Whatley said in a previous interview with Stateline, that could leave lawmakers will little leeway to absorb the federal reductions.

“The state's going to have to backfill those dollars. Those cuts are going to have a direct state budget impact,” he said. “You can't just make easy shifts in education funding.”

Overall, sequestration is designed to cut about $85 billion from federal spending in the remainder of the federal fiscal year, which ends in October. About half of that amount will come from defense spending—about an 8 percent reduction in that sector, according to an Office of Management and Budget analysis. The defense cuts have stoked fears of recession in the states especially reliant on that money.

Most of the rest of the cuts will come from discretionary domestic spending, which will affect many federal grants, safety net programs and research initiatives. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are mostly held harmless.