Political Theater: Education Secretary Visits Md. School on Heels of Sequester


TAKOMA PARK, Md.—Federal budget cuts to early childhood education that could affect 800 Maryland students are a poor idea, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who met Friday with students and teachers at Rolling Terrace Elementary School.

“Sequestration, with its indiscriminate approach to slashing the budget is an example of dumb government at its finest,” Duncan said of the automatic budget reductions that began Friday under what's called sequestration.

White House estimates put Maryland cuts in primary and secondary education at $14.4 million. These cuts will affect the classrooms of around 12,000 Maryland students and put 200 teacher and aide jobs at risk. An additional $9.7 million in educational disabilities program cuts will affect 120 educators working with students with disabilities.

White House figures also show that 800 Maryland children could be affected by cuts to early childhood programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start, a federal program that prepares children of low-income families, up to age 5, for school readiness through educational, health and social services.

Duncan emphasized the importance of early childhood education as he visited classrooms with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. Rolling Terrace, the fifth-largest elementary school in the Montgomery County Public School system, has a high-performing, high-poverty student body.

“The president has pledged to fully offset the cost of an early learning plan so it will not add a dime to the deficit. But some skeptics still question if we should make a major investment in preschool in a tough time, in a period of fiscal austerity,” Duncan said.

“The urgent need for high-quality preschool for low-and-moderate-income students is not in dispute today. Just ask any parent or kindergarten teacher about the gaps in development for children who haven’t had those opportunities,” he said.

Students who enter kindergarten without having attended preschool are 12-14 months behind their preschool-educated counterparts, he said.

“Dramatically expanding high-quality learning is absolutely a win-win opportunity. It would make America more productive, competitive...we can’t win the race for the future by cheating children at the starting line,” he said.

Duncan pointed to members of Congress, who he said are not in touch with the concerns of their constituents or with the results of their actions.

Schools have little choice but to cut teachers, Duncan said, because personnel are about 80 percent of their costs on average.

“Do you hurt more special needs kids to help more poor children? There’s no choice. There’s no right answer,” he said.

Maryland anticipates the main cuts will be to child care subsidy programs and Head Start programs, said Rolf Grafwallner, assistant superintendent of early childhood education at the Maryland State Department of Education.

“That does have its effect on enrollment and the way we can accommodate low-income children. There may be some children who may not have access,” Grafwallner said. “We’re concerned about that piece.”

Duncan said the “man-made mess” of the sequester could quickly be fixed with congressional cooperation.

Sebelius agreed, saying, “Sequestration can be fixed quickly with Congress coming to the table with a balanced approach and continuing to make smart cuts—smart reductions in programs that don’t work very well and smart investments in programs that have a huge payoff in the future.”

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama met with legislators today for discussions, but the parties emerged without an agreement.

Maryland education officials are concerned about the cuts, but the sequester didn’t come as a surprise, said Debra Greenberg Lichter, a federal liaison with the Maryland State Department of Education.

Lichter said letters were sent to superintendents across the state three times since February 2012 advising local systems on the looming cuts.

“They were told, 'Prepare for the worst but hope for the best.' So they are prepared, this didn’t come as a shock to anybody this week....they have been thinking about it along the way,” she said.

Some school districts are able to prepare for the cuts better than others, depending on the size of their budgets and budgetary demands, she said, but the issue is still a serious concern in the upcoming months.

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