Arne Duncan’s Sequester Layoff Claim Falls Flat

The sequester goes into effect today and for the past week, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been busy making sure that the other party gets the measure of blame for the consequences. As part of that effort, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about the impact the cuts will have on the education system, chiefly in the number of teaching jobs lost – 40,000 – and the programs that will have to be shuttered or curtailed in order to make up for loss of federal revenue.

However, according to Shawna Thomas, the White House producer for NBC News, Duncan has been – intentionally or not – playing a bit fast and loose with the facts. Specifically, he was wrong in his assertion that some districts have already started laying people off in the anticipation that the two sides would not come to an agreement in time to avoid the cuts.

Duncan singled out Kanawha County in West Virginia as a school system where Head Start and Title I teachers are already on the chopping block. Indeed, NBC News spoke with Karen Williams, the director of Head Start in the Kanawha County School system, who admitted that the possible layoffs in her country have more to do with funding grant applications and bureaucracy — and less to do with the impending cuts.

Williams is waiting on the Department of Education in her region to make a final funding decision, which was promised by December. But the office is delaying, and Williams has no choice but to begin issuing transfer and reduction in force letters.

Like many similar documents, such a letter does not necessarily mean that the teachers will be out of work come fall. Even if the funding doesn’t come through, most of the staff – especially ones with seniority – will be reassigned to other schools or posts in the district. However, if the Head Start program money doesn’t appear, those “on the bottom of the totem pole” are expected to get laid off.

The county’s Head Start grant employs 39 people, and it serves about 530 children. Both Williams and the school system’s Head Start coordinator, Diane Young, said the federal funding waiting game isn’t business as usual. “I’ve been the director for nine years, and this is the first time it’s happened,” Williams said.

“I am so stressed out. I don’t sleep. I take my job very very seriously,” Williams added.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker awarded Duncan’s claim “Four Pinocchios,” stating that:

Oddly, however, the Education Department for days was unable to cough up the name of a single school district where these notices had been delivered. Then, on Wednesday, Duncan appeared before the White House press corps and produced a name—Kanawha County in West Virginia—with a major league caveat. ‘Whether it’s all sequester-related, I don’t know,’ he said.”

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