By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Amid all the hand-wringing in the U.S. Congress over January 2 spending cuts that would wallop military and domestic programs, children of American soldiers already are feeling the pinch of a budget mess.
Feuding Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress may think that they have about four months to find a smarter alternative to the blunt trauma of $109 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in January and $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
What many lawmakers may not realize is that because of their inability to compromise on a replacement for this budget axe - and because of a quirk in the way the U.S. Department of Education allocates funds to schools heavily populated by military kids - the pain already is palpable.
And that has the administrators of schools serving American bases reeling.
"My sense is the (federal) government is pretty much parked in the garage. It's idling, at best," said Billy Walker, superintendent of a school district 15 miles northeast of San Antonio, Texas.
Calling the looming U.S. budget cuts "the elephant in the room," Walker said that when the 1,200 students in Randolph Field schools start classes on August 27 they will have to contend with dwindling staff and other cuts.
Kids will have fewer reading specialists and math, English and science instructors, a smaller special education staff and other spending reductions sprinkled throughout his budget.
With Washington showing no signs of action, Walker said he simply had to bake into this academic year's budget the January 2 spending cuts. "I don't have a lot of confidence our federal legislators will do anything to help us," Walker told Reuters.
The new cuts come atop earlier belt-tightening that hit the schools serving Randolph Air Force Base, Fort Sam Houston and Lackland Air Force Base because of an ongoing scale-back of federal and state aid. Already gone are baseball, swimming and cross-country running programs, as well as positions that went unfilled when some staffers retired, Walker said.
Districts like Walker's, one of just seven public school districts in the United States whose boundaries are identical to the military bases they serve, are particularly hard-hit by budget cuts because they contain no private real estate upon which to draw property taxes - the local revenues that typically help finance education in the United States.
The stressed school systems are one more instance of a country struggling to keep up with the needs of military families, worn down by a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
CUTS DESIGNED TO BE AWFUL
The trouble began last year when a Congress panicked by rising budget deficits and influenced by the Tea Party movement, a loose coalition of fiscal conservatives bent on smaller government, enacted severe spending cuts designed to be so awful that they would provoke a more measured response.
But that never happened, largely because of an identical gamble on the part of Republicans and Democrats. Each wagered that they will be in a better position to get their way after November's presidential and congressional elections.
Parents are having trouble coping with the budget realities, an added woe to the already difficult job of schooling kids amid frequent transfers to new military posts and spouses shipped off to dangerous places like Afghanistan.
"Parents are worried about losing transportation for their child. They're concerned about the (teacher-student) ratio in classrooms," said Carl James, chief operations officer of the York County School Division in eastern Virginia.
This school district which, like Walker's, serves families living near a cluster of military and intelligence operations including Fort Eustis, Langley Air Force Base and Camp Peary, is experiencing similar education cuts: more students per class, field trips eliminated, bus purchases delayed and teachers no longer attending skill-building conferences.
All the while, schools across the country are saddled with the cost of implementing improvements under former President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program that Congress refuses to fully fund.
NATIVE AMERICAN SCHOOLS SUFFER
Military kids are by no means the only ones being hit right now by one of the most unusual deficit-reduction schemes Congress ever has devised.
There are 11 million public school students in the United States who are "federally connected," according to Jocelyn Bissonnette, director of government affairs for the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.
Of those, she said, about 1 million are children of parents serving in the armed forces. The rest are Native American children living on reservations, children whose parents work on remote federal parkland or other government-owned facilities and other students who are co-mingled.
In each case, the federal government must make up for a lack of local property tax revenues.
Schools serving military bases may be feeling the squeeze of these tight fiscal times, but schools serving Native Americans face even bigger challenges. They must address staggering unemployment rates and serious nutritional needs.
And so the bite of the U.S. Congress' automatic spending cuts hurts them even more; so much so that the Window Rock United School District in Arizona has had to apply for an expensive line of credit with Wells Fargo bank.
"We'll be in the hole $3 million" and "would run out of money in March or sooner," said schools Superintendent Deborah Jackson-Dennison, who is responsible for educating about 2,500 Navajo students in Arizona near the "Four Corners" borders with Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
Jackson-Dennison worries that the newest round of budget cuts is "going to affect our food services" for children reliant on school meals. The area around Window Rock, she said, suffers an unemployment rate far above the national average.
"You see this nonsense going on up there (in Washington)," Jackson-Dennison said, "when here we have this going on. Our unemployment rate is so high, there are people without food and they (Congress) squabble over something so serious."
PREVIEW OF WHAT LIES AHEAD?
The Washington budget impasse is the result of Democrats insisting the rich should do more to help reduce government budget deficits by paying higher taxes; Republicans rejecting that approach and instead calling for deeper social program cuts while shielding the military from any new reductions; and neither side feeling ready to trust the other on reforming expensive retirement and healthcare for the elderly and poor.
For educators, the budget cuts being felt now in public schools serving the military and Native Americans are just a taste of what schools across the country will experience starting in September 2013, if next January's deficit-reduction program is triggered.
Unlike the "federally connected" schools that receive federal funds right around the time the money is needed, the rest of the country's schools are "forwarded funded." For example, they received money a year ago for the 2012-13 academic year.
As a result, "most of the harm from the sequestration (January 2 automatic spending cuts) would not be felt in education programs until the 2013-14 school year," according to a July 20 Department of Education memo to school administrators.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has warned Congress this would translate into a nearly 8 percent funding cut, while 10,000 special education teachers and aides would lose their jobs and 100,000 poor pre-schoolers could be denied access to the Head Start program.
Low-income areas would lose $1.1 billion and possibly 15,000 teachers and aides who otherwise would help 1.8 million disadvantaged students.
Altogether, as many as 80,000 jobs could be lost in one year, the National Education Association estimates.
"It would hit in January, February and March when pink slips for the fall would go out" to teachers slated to lose their jobs in September 2013, said Mary Kusler, NEA director of government relations.
Ethel Johnson has spent the last 30 years as a reading teacher, most of that time in Flint, Michigan, where the poor economy and federal funding uncertainties have led to a district-wide teaching staff reduction from 900 to around 755.
"I was one of those who thought you don't have to have anything to do with politics. You do your job and everything will be OK," she said. But the combination of her school district's struggles and Congress' failure to act led her to run for president of the United Teachers of Flint, a local union.
Referring to the inability so far of Congress to replace the upcoming automatic spending cuts with more reasoned deficit-reduction, Johnson said, "I really wonder what do we elect them for."
(Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Jim Loney)