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A Blog from New America's Federal Education Budget Project

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Ryan Proposed Budget Cuts Could Mean Millions Lost for Some Districts

Published:  September 5, 2012

Paul Ryan’s proposal to cut federal spending by 20 percent has been impossible to ignore – especially what that might mean for education programs. Federal spending currently makes up about 10 percent of annual spending for education, so a 20 percent cut to that spending would only translate to 2 percent of total spending, on average. But what about the impact on non-average school districts?  As it turns out, more than 1,500 districts rely on federal funds for 20 percent or more of their annual revenue, and those districts would take a big hit.

Last week, Ed Media Commons showcased data from the Federal Education Budget Project, Ed Money Watch’s parent initiative, to reveal that these cuts could mean much more for districts that rely more heavily on federal funds. Using Census data on school districts’ total annual revenue and federal revenue for the 2009-10 school year, we calculated the percent of each district’s revenue made up of federal funds, as well as how much each district stands to lose under a 20 percent cut.

Of the more than 1,500 districts that rely on federal funds for 20 percent or more of their annual revenue, seventy-seven would lose more than 10 percent of their annual revenue if Congress were to cut federal spending by 20 percent. Those districts tend to be smaller, with enrollments mostly between 100 and 2,000.

These districts’ reliance on federal revenue can mostly be explained by high proportions of American Indian students. Many districts receive funds under Impact Aid, a federal program that provides funds to school districts with high proportions of “federally impacted” students like American Indians. Because those districts do not benefit from property tax revenue from people living on Indian reservations, the federal government makes up for that lost revenue. For example, Sanders Unified School District in Arizona had an enrollment of 1,049 in 2010 and nearly 97 percent of those students identified as American Indian. Of that district’s approximately $15 million in annual revenue, just over $9 million comes from federal sources. If Congress were to cut spending by 20 percent, Sanders Unified could lose as much as $1.8 million, 12 percent of its annual revenue.

Many large districts would also be disproportionately affected by big cuts to federal education funding. Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools, and Miami-Dade School District, the second-, third-, and fourth-largest school districts in the country, each rely on federal funds for more than 16 percent of their annual revenue. Chicago receives nearly 24 percent, or $1.2 billion, of its annual $5.1 billion in total revenue from federal sources. That federal funding comes from several federal programs aimed at low-income students such as Title I (about $300 million) and Free and Reduced Price Meals (about $140 million), as well as special education (about $90 million). A 20 percent cut to federal funding would mean a loss of $244 million for Chicago.

Of course, some districts rely very little on the federal government for education funding. Over 2,100 districts get 5 percent or less of their annual revenues from federal sources. These districts also tend to be smaller – only 248 have enrollments over 5,000 – and tend to serve wealthier and less diverse populations. Cheshire School District in Connecticut, for example, had an enrollment of 4,950 in 2010 and an annual revenue of over $71 million, only 4.5 percent of which came from federal sources. The district has a student poverty rate of only 3.1 percent, very few English language learners, and is made up of nearly 87 percent white students. This means the district receives very little federal funding under programs like Title I or Free and Reduced Price Meals. If federal spending were cut by 20 percent, Cheshire would only lose $637,000 in revenue.

While a 20 percent cut would be devastating for many school districts, others would lose only the aforementioned 2 percent or even less. These austere times mean that cuts to federal spending are likely. We hope that Congress is able to target those cuts in such a way that protects the most vulnerable students that benefit directly from federal spending. While Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act special education spending are often the most discussed, it is important that programs like Impact Aid also factor heavily into negotiations. For many of these districts, such a cut could mean millions of dollars or a substantial portion of their annual revenue.

Click here to download these data for every school district in the nation. To view programmatic and demographic data, please visit febp.newamerica.net/k12.

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