Shutdown 2013 Won't Kill the Education System, It'll Make it Stronger

This week, due to Congress' inability to pass a reconciled budget, many functions of the federal government have been shut down. Some "essential" operations remain unscathed by the crisis, but PolicyMic's Robert Taylor and Alex Uriarte gave us a lowdown on the dissonance between what is considered essential by federal officials and what is actually essential for the American citizenry. Casualties of the shutdown are numerous: We see the closure of Yosemite Park, the harrowing cessation of cancer clinical trials for children, the abrupt halt of NASA explorations, among others.

So it is natural for some to worry that another integral function of our government — education — may be affected as well, and to be concerned whether teachers would stay in classrooms. However, as long as the shutdown does not drag on for months, it seems both public education and the aid for higher education will be hit only moderately, giving at least some comfort to American students and teachers.

Because public schools in the U.S. are run at the local level, no schools are shut down and teachers continue to teach. The one city that is controlled by the federal government, Washington D.C., has taken unprecedented steps also to ensure that teachers are able to work — Mayor Vincent Gray declared all municipal functions "essential" and a member of the city council proposed to draw from the city's contingency cash reserve fund.

The federal Department of Education has more than 90% of its workers heading home due to the shutdown, meaning it will shed many of its major day-to-day operations. Nevertheless, its consequences will likely be tempered in the short term. Pell Grants and direct loans will still be issued. The department's $22 billion grants towards targeted items such as special education, vocational education, and Title I — which assists disadvantaged localities — will also be distributed this week. If a federal budget remains elusive for months, then a protracted shutdown can lead to more and more funding being dried out.

For example, Investing in Innovation, a grant program established to encourage out-of-the-box solutions in education, currently only has funding until December 31. School districts more dependent on federal money thereby may have to cut teachers afterwards. The longest shutdown lasted for 21 days; therefore, I don't expect this shutdown to last long enough to inflict that kind of damage, but in our age of political irrationality some are justified to be pessimistic.  

There are, however, important federal programs that will be at risk sooner. Head Start grantees who would have received their money in October may be out of luck. The school lunch program will survive October but may be drained if the shutdown slouches into November.

As the shutdown's harmful impact on education will be limited and gradual, there could well be a silver lining to all of this: A number of school districts previously running heavily on federal dollars will adapt to the tightened fiscal situation and deliver ways to maintain high standards despite lessened federal input. For those districts, survival without federal money could mean more autonomy and less top-down control from the Department of Education down the road.

Nietzsche once said, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger". But not all districts, and certainly not all teachers and students, would be the fortunate ones under an extended period of government shutdown. Hence, for the best interest of students, teachers, and parents, Congress — in particular House Republicans — should end their political brinkmanship and pass a sound budget.