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What Does Government Shutdown Mean for Charter Schools?

In case you haven’t heard, America doesn’t have a government right now. All non-essential services have been shut down until Congress agrees to pay for them, but technically there is no law declaring anything “essential,” so we could see a lot more services disappear at any given time.

So, as we float through this political purgatory, some are asking the effect that this is having on education. Historically, some departments are faster to be shut down than others, and the Department of Education is unfortunately among them. Partial shutdowns happened a lot in the 1970s, and full-government shutdowns happened throughout the 1980s; both times the Department of Education was one of the first to get slashed.

But it’s been a while since the last shutdown, which happened over the New Year’s holiday week of 1995-96. President Clinton’s fiscal team couldn’t agree with the Republican-heavy Congressional fiscal team on a 7-year budget, based off a Medicare-related issue that had rolled over from just a month prior. Similarly, this year’s shut down is over a rolling healthcare issue as well. Despite all the talk about “ransoms,” both parties are guilty of pulling this stunt over the years, so let’s put aside the blame-game and figure out how it affects us.

Contingency plans for the U.S. DOE state that within the first week of a government shutdown, up to 90% of the department’s employees would be placed on unpaid leave. That means over 3,800 of the 4,225 full-time DOE employees counted in September 2013 are considered “non-essential.”

So, they’re released indefinitely (furloughed). They can’t enjoy Washington D.C.’s best attractions because it’s basically one huge federal city, so things like the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, National Zoo, and the monuments are all closed. Hopefully, the city’s residents invested in a Netflix account last week, because this one could last awhile.

Oh, and one upside during this obligatory vacation is that no parking tickets will be written in the District of Columbia as long as the government is on hiatus, so don’t be worried about driving to Dupont or Georgetown.

Like the parking situation, the initial effects of a shutdown on education are almost comical. Requests to the U.S. DOE will be received, but responses will be sluggish, if you get a response at all. Since most civilian government employees have been furloughed, many of the hidden gears that drive public education have ground to a halt.

Surfing federal websites during a shutdown is like driving the streets at 3am on a Tuesday night. Just try going on to the Department of Education’s website today and you’ll see disclaimers telling everyone that the site is not being updated or even monitored. The data warehouse, NCES, is completely turned off. The Pew Research Center has already expressed its frustration with the data problem.

This means anyone using federal data or resources to write grant applications will have to wait for people to get back into the office and sift through a few hundred emails. Pell grants, Title I, special education and career and technical education grants will still go out because they were appropriated before the shut down, but the delivery of those monies will likely be delayed and any questions directed to the DOE will be ignored.

Still, a short-term shutdown is not likely to affect local districts that much. Most local public school revenue is from state and local sources, so missing some federal IDEA funds here and there isn’t that big of a deal. Moreover, school teachers, principals, administrators, etc. work for either the district or the state, so furloughs are an alien concept at the local level. However, should the government remain closed for a protracted amount of time, even districts could feel a pinch when they call on Washington for special funding like Race to the Top and other national initiatives.

The world of school choice occupies a strange position in all of this. One supreme disadvantage for charter schools in this scenario is that many don’t receive local revenue from the district, especially if the charter school is its own Local Education Agency (LEA). Much of this lack in local dollars is made up for in federal grants, and once those grants run dry the charter school would have to turn to private fundraising just to meet its own budget. Like districts, charter schools wouldn’t suffer more than a slight inconvenience during a short-term shutdown, but a longer one could significantly impact operations. The neat thing here is that charter schools usually already have a donor network set up, so raising money on short-notice wouldn’t be as hard as it would be for public schools.

The autonomy given to charter schools would also allow them to move gracefully through cost-cutting loopholes, meaning if massive cuts to education occurred as a result of political turmoil, charter schools could just keep slashing their budgets to meet demand. Furthermore, even if we assumed cataclysmic effects that would require closing schools and selling property, the fact charter schools can own their own land and build their own schools means that no matter what happened to the American government, charter schools would remain to educate children. Since charter schools also hire their own employees, government furloughs wouldn’t affect human capital, either.

The one are of the country where charter schools might immediately be affected by a shutdown would be Washington D.C. As a federal city, all its employees are paid by appropriations from Congress, and the Mayor’s contingency plan states that many of those employees would be furloughed as well. However, even in the District, within miles of the Congress responsible for paying them, a few departments will remain open: The Metropolitan Police Department, the fire department, and D.C. public and charter schools.

To be completely honest, the effects of a government shutdown on education range from the insignificant to the unknown. Most public education is run from the state and local levels, and federal programs like Race to the Top and Common Core often aren’t popular anyway. If anything, a lot of public education people couldn’t care less whether the federal government operates, and it would likely take months of a shutdown to actually trickle down to the local level.

Without getting too preachy, we’d like to point out the beauty of America’s distinctly confederated and democratic republic, namely those rights inherent in the 10th Amendment. While a central entity is necessary for things like national security, we as Americans can’t rely on Washington for everything. This recent federal shutdown is proof that a unified collection of state governments with the right to tax is crucial for maintaining the status quo of American life, especially in education, and especially in the long run.

School choice is a microcosm of this independence, and allowing the expansion of charter schools is a way to secure educational options in the event that public education does meet some major barrier in the future.

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