Tomorrow the government shuts down if Congress fails to pass a budget. In reality, only non-essential government services including many regulatory agencies such as the EPA, along with national parks services and passport agencies. In all, some 800,000 federal employees out of more than 2 million could be furloughed—although no one can say for sure.

The U.S. Department of Education plans to furlough 90 percent of its employees. This situation shouldn’t be a crisis, right? After all, as the department itself explains, it has just an itsy, bitsy role to play in American education:

Education is primarily a State and local responsibility in the United States. It is States and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation. The structure of education finance in America reflects this predominant State and local role. Of an estimated $1.15 trillion being spent nationwide on education at all levels for school year 2011-2012, a substantial majority will come from State, local, and private sources. This is especially true at the elementary and secondary level, where about 87.7 percent of the funds will come from non-Federal sources. 

Yet judging by the media coverage, along with the department’s own contingency plan, a shutdown would have a cataclysmic impact on schooling nationwide.  According to the Washington Post, “While public schools will remain open, the U.S. Education Department will stop most of its operations, and there will be repercussions.” Namely, there are potential longer-term payment delays stemming from fewer personnel processing checks. School districts that received waivers from the No Child Left Behind law would also have no one to answer questions.

Such a “crisis” is wholly of our own making. In spite of claims elsewhere by the department to have just a small role in education, in its shutdown contingency plan, officials write:

A protracted delay in Department obligations and payments beyond one week would severely curtail the cash flow to school districts, colleges and universities, and vocational rehabilitation agencies that depend on the Department’s funds to support their services.  For example, many school districts receive more than 20 percent of their funds from Department-funded programs.  Colleges rely on Higher Education funds to pay ongoing expenses of staff running programs for disadvantaged students seeking to enter and stay in college.  Vocational rehabilitation agencies receive 80 percent of the cost of providing services to adult individuals with disabilities from the Department’s program.   

For decades we have willingly become too dependent on the federal government to oversee and redirect tax dollars for what should be basic functions that are best handled—and financed—locally.

The real issue to watch, as Education Week points out, isn’t a short-term shutdown. Rather, it’s the looming breach of the national debt ceiling. A downgraded credit rating, along with the destabilizing effects on the overall economy, would have far worse consequences for government-run schools.

For all the hand wringing, it’s time to reconsider just how much big government costs us. More importantly, it’s time to consider that the best contingency plan of all is minimizing our dependency on government.