By Amanda Litvinov
On Friday, the first day that 800,000 federal workers did not receive a paycheck, Fairfax County Public Schools held an event for furloughed workers to apply for positions as substitute teachers. Fairfax County, Virginia, is part of the Washington, D.C., metro area and a community that well over 50,000 federal employees call home.
Every one of the 200 event spots were reserved, prompting district leaders to arrange another event for this Friday.
Families headed up by federal workers have been the first to feel the effects of the partial government shutdown now in its fourth week, the longest shutdown in U.S. history. While an estimated 400,000 of those workers are concentrated around D.C., there are pockets of federal workers stationed all across the country.
Already, public schools are stepping up to help support local families. Some are offering to expedite applications for free or reduced-price lunches for the children of furloughed federal employees, while others are serving as a community hub, hosting events such as job fairs or a dinner for families most affected by the shutdown.
But if the stalemate over the federal budget drags on for months—as President Trump has suggested that it might—public schools, too, will suddenly find themselves on shakier financial ground.
WHERE THINGS STAND
First of all—deep breath—the bulk of federal funding for public schools is secure. Congress passed a bill funding the Department of Education back in September, and the President signed the legislation. That ensures that major education programs, like Title I and IDEA, are funded through September 2019.
But Congress did not pass bills to fund all federal agencies.
The sticking point is President Trump’s demand that Congress provide $5.7 billion to build a new wall on our southern border—a wall he promised Mexico would pay for, not U.S. taxpayers. Trump recently threatened to bypass Congress, declare a national emergency, and build the wall with funds earmarked for disaster victims in Texas, California, Puerto Rico, and Florida. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said the president is using “the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis.”
The House has passed multiple bills to reopen the government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has refused to allow senators to vote on them.
The shutdown is already affecting some college students and faculty, raising concerns that financial aid will be unavailable and critical research stalled.
Although the Department of Education is open and processing federal loans and grants like Pell Grants, 90 percent of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees are furloughed and the IRS website has been unavailable since the end of 2018. This means students can’t access their tax return transcripts, which are necessary for financial aid applications.
University of Maryland student Michelle Moraa told Teen Vogue that she had resorted to setting up a GoFundMe site to keep her in school this semester. Until college officials saw her story on local television and intervened, she had been thinking, “Alright, I might not go back to school, what’s my next step?”
Meanwhile, many faculty researchers rely on data and funding from federal agencies that are closed, like NASA, NOAA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). At the University of Florida (UF) alone, 1,075 research awards given by federal agencies to UF researchers have been affected by the shutdown, reports the Independent Florida Alligator.
The effects could be long-lasting, researchers fear, as the shutdown also has stalled graduate assistant hiring, which delays the next generation of innovation.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
If the government shutdown continues several more weeks, it could cause acute financial problems for many rural schools.
The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS) represents a commitment from Congress to help support communities on or near federal lands, such as national forests, that were removed from local tax rolls.
Rural counties rely on SRS funds, explains Jonathan Shuffield, Associate Legislative Director at the National Association of Counties.
“Local governments and schools rely on these programs to fund critical services, including education, infrastructure maintenance, search and rescue efforts on federal lands and law enforcement activities,” Shuffield said.
The next payments are set to go out in March, and funding is already in place. But unless staff at the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are back on the job soon, SRS checks could be delayed.
Delays in SRS funding—which rural schools have faced many times in recent years—force some districts to tap into reserves or make tough choices about which services or programs to cut until the SRS money comes through. Those cuts could affect more than 9 million students in 41 states.
If the shutdown continues into March, schools will face an unprecedented crisis: the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, which provide free and reduced-price meals for 30 million and 14.5 million children, respectively, will run out of funding.
Although it is one of the agencies affected by the shutdown, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in late December that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—which helps more than 38 million Americans afford to eat—will be funded through February, and the school meals programs will be funded through March.
“If SNAP, school meals, WIC, and other USDA nutrition programs reduce or terminate benefits in the next few weeks, decades of progress in the fight against hunger will unravel and millions of Americans will face desperate levels of hunger,” said James D. Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center, in a written statement.
“That alone is absolutely unacceptable. But the consequences go beyond hunger,” Weill said. “People’s health will worsen, hospital and health care costs will rise, students’ learning will suffer, food retailers will lose business, local economies will weaken, and huge numbers of jobs will be lost.”
It is unclear the extent of damage an extended shutdown could do to state economies. States provide, on average, 47 percent of school funding.
The nonpartisan National Governors Association, currently chaired by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, sent a letter on Jan. 7 urging Congress to re-open the government before federal workers endure any more hardship and before any further harm is done to state and local economies.
The National Education Association is asking public school supporters to join in efforts to urge members of Congress to quickly end this shutdown, whose impact is “is rippling all across America, hurting families, communities, and local businesses.”