How a Government Shutdown Might Impact Education

Apr 11, 2011

Partisan disputes over budgeting issues threatened to 'shut down' the government late last week. Fortunately, Congress and President Obama were able to come to an agreement, keeping the government funded and fully operational for the time being. However, there's no guarantee that this problem won't recur at some point in the future. What impact would a government shut down have on education?

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By Sarah Wright

What Is a Government Shutdown?

A 'government shutdown' is what happens when the funding necessary to keep the government operating is unavailable. This is most often a possibility because of political roadblocks, rather than an actual lack of money. At the end of last week, when the prospect of a government shutdown loomed, many citizens were anxious and confused about what might happen. Some media outlets reported that the shutdown would only apply to services that were deemed 'non-essential,' but not many people know what that means. It's safe to say that confusion would have been a major side effect of any stoppage of government services.

For now, there won't be any suspension of government operations. Congressional Democrats and Republicans managed to work out a compromise, with the help of President Obama. The compromise came at what seemed like the last minute, late in the day on Friday, but it was enough to continue funding the federal government. Before this resolution was reached, though, many were wondering how the shutdown would impact them. We can't say for sure what would happen this time around, but we do have a recent model for what a government shutdown looks like, and how it impacts education in the United States.

US Capitol

A similar event occurred in 1995, when Congressional Republicans and President Clinton, a Democrat, couldn't reach a consensus on certain politically divisive issues like Medicare and the environment. Congressional Republicans butting heads with a Democratic president over hot button political issues - sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it? The situation in 1995 has a lot of similarities to our current scenario, though, fortunately, Democrats and Republicans were able to reach a deal this time around.

The shutdown in 1995 lasted from December 16 of that year through January 6, 1996. During the span of these weeks, non-essential services were halted. Any service performed by the federal government, but not absolutely necessary to keep the country running, is considered a non-essential service. This includes tasks ranging in importance from the processing of passport applications, maintenance of National Parks and operation of the FCC to the monitoring and public reporting of disease outbreaks. Essential services, like air traffic control, administration of emergency medical services, operation of the military and IRS tax collection activities, continued.

Shutdowns and Education

In 1995-1996, certain areas of the education system were disrupted, but overall, students and teachers in public schools across the nation were able to go about their business as normal. Because the Department of Education (DOE) is a non-essential part of the government, though, those offices were closed during the shutdown period. This meant that communication with the DOE wasn't possible, and that any ongoing educational regulation and formation of new rules, were put on hold. Student loan applications were not processed during this time period, but because December and early January aren't the most important time for financial aid services, the impact was not as strong as it may have been if the shutdown had occurred in May-August.

budget deal

Another contributing factor for the relatively minor impact on education is the fact that most public education is funded and administered at the state or local level. The federal government does play an important role in certain aspects of the educational system, like implementing national standards and providing some types of funding. But because the shutdown was relatively short, the impact on by state and local governments was not severe.

Even research and other activities funded by federal bodies are able to function during a government shutdown. Because these funding bodies generally give grants in advance of work happening, most researchers and scholars were able to continue their work during the three-week shutdown in the 90s, and would be able to do so during another such event in the future. This would depend, of course, on the duration of the shutdown. Since funding bureaus like the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and National Endowment for the Arts are non-essential services, a protracted shutdown might have a negative impact on research and scholarship.

If you are interested in politics and education, you might want to check out this article about a controversial system for disciplining public school teachers in New York City.

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