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Education chief acknowledges misspeaking, says sequester cuts will have impact

Education Secretary Arne Duncan today said he misspoke when suggesting last week that some schools were already issuing "pink slips," because of the sequester budget cuts.

Still, Duncan noted that some districts are voluntarily making cuts in anticipation of the across-the-board cuts that will affect their federal aid.

"Language is really, really important, and I want to apologize for not being as clear as I should have been last week," he said in a press availability at the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools conference.

"When I said 'pink slips,' that was probably the wrong word. I should have used 'job eliminations,' 'positions eliminated,'" he said. "We had a little drama, got it. Lessons learned on all sides, got it."

Last week, Duncan specifically referenced Kanawha County in West Virginia as a district that had distributed “pink slips.” But according to the Washington Post, that county’s superintendent said that while some Title 1 teachers who work with high-poverty students may have received “transfer notices,” they were not explicitly linked to the sequester.

But Duncan said on Monday that he never meant to imply that all the funding from Kanawha or any other district was at risk simply because of the sequester, saying that whether cuts are “due in part or in large part or sometimes exclusively [because of the sequester] is going to vary story by story.”

He said that some school districts rely on several sources of federal aid, some of which may see more immediate effects from sequestration than others.  

“These guys aren't just hit with Impact Aid cuts. They're hit with Special Ed cuts. They're hit with Title 1 cuts. They might not have money for English language learners. We can try harder to articulate that, but the bottom line is school districts were being hit with cuts to, you know, federal funding cuts in different pots, and all that has an impact,” he said. 

Yet the sequester itself might have its most immediate education impact on the group Duncan spoke to on Monday: Impact Aid districts, which need federal aid to make up for a shortage in property taxes (because their districts are on or near Native American reservations or military bases). 

Duncan urged the leaders to keep the pressure on Congress by publicizing the cuts they've had to make.

“The more you guys can feed us these stories ... we're going to keep telling these stories until Congress pays attention,” he said.

Ron Walker, a school superintendent in Kansas whose district relies on federal Impact Aid, said he had to cut certain projects for this school year "solely" as a proactive effort against the sequester.

“I guess I'm a realist and I didn't have any illusions that this could be avoided. I felt that the polarization was so large that we had to take action,” Walker said.