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00000176-e6f7-dce8-adff-f6f7707e000090.5 WESA's Life of Learning series focuses on learning and education activities, opportunities and challenges in the Greater Pittsburgh area.This multi-year commitment to providing learning-focused news coverage in southwestern Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Grable Foundation.

Schools Begin Feeling the Pinch of Sequestration

The calls didn’t come on the first or second days of school. Or even the third. But they came soon thereafter and each day more of them are coming in.

"What parents are finding is that the manpower that there to support their kids one on one isn't there," said Cindy Duch, director of parent advising at the Parent Education and Advocacy Leadership Center, or PEAL, an advocacy group that helps out parents of children with disabilities.

"Schools are moving more towards having one paraprofessional or aide to support a number of children. For some children that’s appropriate. Other children need more support from an individual."

As part of the automatic federal budget cuts known as the sequester that went into effect last March, every school district in the country saw a 5 percent reduction of their federal resources. That has, for the most part, not really shown itself until this school year because of the way funding is distributed. That was also during the time when Congress was working on their final allocations for fiscal year 2013. Those allocations equated to a .2 percent cut.

Approximately 14 percent of children in Pennsylvania have special needs. They might need a paraprofessional to ride the bus with them or to guide them through the day’s classes.  They might need a set of textbooks at home. Those are the sort of things that are gone due to the sequester.

Special education classrooms everywhere have been affected. But school districts with lower tax bases and high rates of poverty that rely heavily on federal and state resources, such as Duquesne, Penn Hills, Sto-Rox, Clairton and McKees Port, have been hit the hardest. It’s taken a while for parents to see the full effects of the federal sequester in their children’s classrooms.

They're seeing them now.

"This is the beginning of the school year, typically we call it the honeymoon period, the kids aren’t experiencing a lot of trouble right now so we’re not getting a lot of calls here regarding issues or experiences that the families are having for the kids in school," Duch said. "But again, we anticipate too, that there is going to be issues that come up because of funding."

Programs ranging from special education to extra curricular activites have been affected.

"Really, you name the federal education grant and that saw the 5.2 percent," said Jamie Baxter, director of legislative policy and advocacy at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which serves 42 school districts in Allegheny County excluding Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Baxter said some of those districts are struggling to just keep the lights on and make sure the kids get the most basic of classes such as reading and math. She said programs were cut across the board.

"That’s what made it a hard pill to swallow, that didn’t take into account waste within a program or if a program was not successful, it didn’t look at any of that," she said. "It really was a true across the board cut to all discretionary programs including all special education programs." 

Baxter said while each district is different, in some cases, classrooms have gone from 26 to 32 students.

"When you first look at a school you may not notice that anything is different but then when you start going through the programs delivered by the district and the equipment and textbooks and things like that that they use to deliver their curriculum that’s where you can see some changes," she said. 

And that’s in addition to state reductions in recent years. Right now, the special education funding commission is looking at how different districts are funded throughout the state.

Even if they can, some school districts may be hesitant to replace funding because if they raise their funding for special education and then reduce it, they could see their federal funding cut. Known as maintenance of effort, it means that even if the federal government replaces the money cut through the sequester, school districts will then have to spend more that they did before the cuts.

Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.
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