Thursday, January 03, 2013

Fiscal Cliff Deal Spares Higher Education Research Funding, Tuition Tax Credit

The deal to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff" spared the American Opportunity Tax Credit and extended the measure for five years, EdWeek reports. Born of the 2009 stimulus bill, the American Opportunity Tax Credit allows middle- and low-income families a tax deduction of up to $2,500 a year in education expenses for four years. It can trim the overall cost of a college degree by $10,000.

The fiscal cliff agreement also makes permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for couples earning under $450,000 and individuals earning under $400,000.

"Under this law, more than 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses will not see their income taxes go up. Millions of families will continue to receive tax credits to help raise their kids and send them to college," President Obama said Tuesday night after the House voted on the fiscal cliff deal.

Without the bill's passage, an 8.2 percent across-the-board cut to domestic discretionary programs and a 7.6 percent cut for mandatory spending programs would have immediately affected several funding streams critical to universities, including sources of scholarship programs and research grants. Affected programs included the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense aid to veterans to attend college. Those sequestration cuts are now delayed for two months. (Pell Grants were not affected because they were not subject to sequestration.)

Even with the delay in sequestration, education funding still faces cuts in 2013. The federal government's continuing budget resolution comes due at the end of March, and Republicans in Congress are demanding budget cuts in exchange for any raise in the debt ceiling. Federal research money would be the most likely casualty of future budget cuts, along with changes in who is eligible for financial aid programs.

But the president warned against any further spending reductions Tuesday night after the fiscal cliff bill passed, saying, "We can't simply cut our way to prosperity," and referring specifically to higher education.

"We can't keep cutting things like basic research and new technology and still expect to succeed in a 21st century economy," Obama said. "So we're going to have to continue to move forward in deficit reduction, but we have to do it in a balanced way, making sure that we are growing even as we get a handle on our spending."


I’ll buy el cheapo food and clothes rather than take my son out of his British private school

A real mother reports from grim Britain, where a huge overload of bureaucracy makes the living standard  lower every year

An email bearing the dreaded subject line ‘School Fee Bill’ pinged into my inbox. My heart sank as I wondered how my husband Christy and I were going to pay it. Would this be the month we finally couldn’t?

Our financial problems have been brewing for years. With twin daughters now in their 30s and 16-year-old Joe approaching his GCSEs, Christy and I have been paying school fees for more than 20 years.

Average fees in our area of South-West London range from £12,000 to £19,500 a year — which is an awful lot of money to find in the midst of a global economic downturn.

Of course, many families are struggling, yet economists say we are cutting back on the basics rather than forgoing our luxuries. I know we are — for what could be more luxurious than paying for private education when there are good state schools out there?

Many people will think the hundreds of thousands of pounds we’ve spent on our children’s education wasteful — but it is the one thing on which we refuse to compromise. And in order to continue giving Joe the education I think he deserves, I’m willing to sacrifice all the other trappings of my middle-class lifestyle.

I’ve ditched expensive (delicious!) Waitrose food and started buying my groceries at Aldi. I’ve swapped designer frocks from Harvey Nichols for cheap High Street brands, and have even turned my beautiful flower garden into a home-grown vegetable patch — all so we can pay those school fees.

It was fortunate that my husband and I were in agreement. Had we held opposite cultural views on private schooling, or been divorced, I don’t know how we would have managed.

And while many people would suggest we just send Joe to the local comprehensive, children only get one shot at education — and I didn’t want to throw away my son’s.

We did look at the state alternatives, but they just didn’t seem up to it. They had a tangible ‘poverty of expectation’, to use a fashionable phrase, which was reflected in their mediocre exam results and the way the boys slouched around in scruffy uniforms. It just didn’t seem right to send our son there — no matter how much our circumstances may have changed since he enrolled.

Until five years ago, I had no reason to believe that we would find it hard to provide our son with the same opportunities his older sisters had had. Both successful authors, our joint income in 2008 topped £100,000.

But then the recession started to bite, and nowhere harder than in books and newspapers. Finding work was not a problem: we both love writing, are quite good at it, and were fortunate enough to get commissions and publishing contracts for new book ideas.

But publishers’ advances were suddenly nowhere near as generous as they once had been. In the past year, a book Christy and I worked on together remained in the bestseller lists for six weeks, and now looks like being made into a TV drama. But — like Britain itself — although our long-term prospects for financial recovery were good, the balance in our joint bank account remained alarmingly low. We were earning less than a third of what we once had.

My savings dwindled rapidly — just as a tax bill arrived for my highest rolling year, precisely as my earnings dropped to a record low. Suddenly, for the first time since we were young newlyweds, we were living from hand to mouth.

Big changes were called for. As the world plunged into financial crisis, I got out the calculator and worked out that, to my horror, our basic annual outgoings topped £22,000 — most of which went to cover the large mortgage on our terraced house. And that sum was not including food and clothes, let alone school fees.

But while we were willing to cut back in many areas of our life, Joe’s education was sacrosanct.

Although our twin daughters had attended state schools up until the age of 11, we’d never regretted the money spent on sending them to a private secondary school.

We paid for Joe to go to a private nursery because I was working and the hours suited us better.

After that, it seemed natural that he should go on to the linked primary school along with all his friends, and then secondary.

Not only is he doing very well academically there, more importantly, he is very happy and we would hate to disrupt him in such an important year.

His school is, and always has been, extremely supportive — not only in giving Joe the best education possible, but also looking out for his emotional stability as well.

I felt this was what mattered most, and was willing to sell the house, if we had to, sooner than jeopardise his future. First to go was my clothes habit. From now on, it would be H&M and Primark, instead of Harvey Nicks.

The good quality clothes I already owned — Joseph pencil skirts and Maxmara suits — proved a sound investment and could be shortened, lengthened or paired with High Street accessories at very little extra cost. Meanwhile, my husband swears by TK Maxx.

Then there were cosmetics. I managed to save £20 a month just by swapping expensive ‘miracle’ serum for basic aqueous cream from the local chemist — and my face didn’t appear to suffer.

Perfume, too, could hardly be counted as a ‘necessity’, so when my Prada favourite ran out, it wasn’t replenished (though I did allow myself the occasional bid for a ‘tester’ on eBay).

My daily Americano at Starbucks and Pret a Manger had to go. Our home coffee machine makes a cup for 7p, and a homemade cheese and pickle sandwich probably costs about the same.

I upped my game by switching gas and electricity providers, as well as car and home insurance, saving several hundred pounds.

I then ‘found’ a further £200 by changing to a ‘no frills’ current account after realising we never used any of the now ludicrous-seeming ‘executive’ perks of running a more expensive one.

Then came the family holiday. Before 2008, we went to Brazil and Sicily: now we started looking around for kind relatives and friends we could visit in the UK.

A three-night mini-break in Munich, which I stuck on the credit card to worry about later, was as luxurious as it got.

Birthday dinners were similarly downsized. Fashionable London restaurants gave way to family trips to Pizza Express using as many discount vouchers as possible.

Although we urgently needed to have some building work done on our house (decaying window frames needed attention), all home improvements had to be put on hold. Winter draughts are being papered over with parcel tape.

The weekly food bill needed major surgery. I love Waitrose, but knew we had to forgo it — apart from popping in for the odd bag of posh pasta for rare treats. My husband started growing his own cavallo nero cabbages (previously £2 a go) from a £5 tray of seedlings we bought from the garden centre.

The garden was cleared for action with a mini greenhouse and raised beds. We weren’t under any romantic illusions about any Good Life-style self sufficiency: we simply wanted to save money.

We’d previously popped into our local Lidl only out of curiosity: now, it was out of necessity. We were by no means the only middle-class couple in there, pouncing on French cheeses or bars of Colombian (81 per cent pure cocoa) chocolate, shouting: ‘Here, look at this darling — it’s only 99p!’

Once, hearing my name called out down one of the aisles, I turned to see a friend from my Pilates class, married to a hedge-fund manager, pushing a giant trolley. Why waste money when you could buy food at bargain prices, she reasoned.

It turned out that economising was no hardship. It made me think, and count and plan our meals in advance. It made me a proper home-maker. Actually, it made me feel quite smug about it.

But what was more worrying was the way I found myself reacting to some unexpected misfortune, like the washing machine breaking down. Even a parking ticket felt like a train crash. If you can easily put things right by reaching into your wallet, it is no big deal. But when you are watching every penny, minor mishaps feel like a major catastrophe.

There were occasions when I simply found myself without money at all — a terrifying feeling when it has never happened to you before, or at least not since you were young and broke yet felt it did not matter.

Money is not just about being able to buy the necessities, it is also about basic emotional security.

Waking up with a feeling of fear every morning about how you are going to pay the bills is exhausting, and eats away at your self-confidence.

I longed for that anxiety to end — but not enough for me to compromise my son’s education.

And while we went through some very difficult times indeed during 2012, gradually, as we kept working hard and trying to cut all the corners we could, our finances started to improve. We didn’t suddenly have thousands of pounds going spare, but at least we were ‘managing’.

And it was worth it — all the sacrifices and the going short of things I’d thought I couldn’t live without — just to see how well our son was growing up. It’s amazing how little you can get by on when you really have to.

This Christmas has been austere but entirely appropriate. My husband and I exchanged gifts costing no more than £40 (he bought me a jumper from H&M, while I bought him a model of a Mini). We set a strict budget of £100 for the children — and stuck to it.

Every treat has been relished, every scaled-back gift deeply appreciated.

Of course, I may look back on this in a few years’ time and wonder why I put my family through all that just to send my son to private school. But somehow I don’t think so. Few things justify struggling so hard for — but my son’s future is one of them.


Muslim parents sue British primary school over ban on hijab

A school is being sued by Muslim parents after banning pupils from wearing the traditional Islamic headscarf in lessons, it has emerged.

St Cyprian's Greek Orthodox primary in south London faces being hauled before the High Court amid claims that its uniform policy breaches children’s religious freedom.

The couple insisted it would be a sin for their nine-year-old daughter’s head to be uncovered while in the presence of male teachers.

The move represents the latest in a series of legal challenges against school uniform rules on religious and racial grounds.

In a landmark case six years ago, a Muslim schoolgirl – Shabina Begum – successfully challenged a decision by a Luton secondary school to refuse to allow her to wear a traditional gown, although the judgement was later overturned by the Court of Appeal.

Last year, a north London school was also found to have broken antidiscrimination legislation when it turned away a pupil for wearing cornrow braids in his hair.

Current Government guidance on uniforms says that schools should “act reasonably” in accommodating various beliefs relating to clothes, hair and religious artefacts.

But it says heads should have the ultimate power to restrict the “freedom of pupils to manifest their religion” if it is justified on health and safety grounds or to protect other children.

In the latest case, parents are believed to have enrolled their daughter at the Greek Orthodox primary in Thornton Heath two years ago after pulling her out of a private school.

The couple – who have not been named – appealed to governors when the girl was prevented from wearing the traditional Muslim hijab in class.

But they withdrew the child and launched a legal challenge with the High Court when the school refused to reverse the ban.

Kate Magliocco, the head, said the girl’s parents believed that "she has reached puberty and it would be a sin for her not to be covered because the school has male teachers".

"The decision not to allow her to wear a headscarf was taken by the governing body,” she added.

"The school has a very particular uniform policy, which is shared with parents and, as head, I must follow the plan. The pupil in question came to us from a private school.

"Her parents actively chose us and, before she arrived, we held a meeting which included details of the uniform plan."

The uniform policy on the school’s website requires girls to wear a dark blue coat, an optional blazer, a skirt, white blouse and a navy blue pullover – but fails to mention a ban on headscarves.

Mrs Magliocco said the girl had observed all of the school's Greek Orthodox practices, adding: "At the heart of this is a girl who has been unable to return to school… If it does go to court then it cannot be a positive thing.”

The child's brother remains a pupil at the school and it is believed the family have submitted a fresh application to have the issue heard at the High Court after their first attempt was rejected late last year.

The matter is due to be considered in February.


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