MONEY

Federal cuts hurting the Head Start programs for preschoolers

Teacher Gines Gaytan works with children at the River Valley Migrant and Season Head Start program for the children of migrant and seasonal workers in Kankakee, Illinois, on July 16, 2010. Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/MCT

WASHINGTON — Last year about 1 million of the nation’s poorest children got a leg up through Head Start, the federal program that helps prepare children up to age five for school. This fall, about 57,000 children will be denied a place in Head Start and Early Head Start.

Their loss is fallout from the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration. These large-scale cuts went into effect after lawmakers in Washington were unable to agree on a budget. So far, the cuts have slashed more than $400 million from the federal program’s $8 billion budget.

Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, said sequestration represented the largest hit to Head Start funding since the program began in 1965.

“The cut has been very painful throughout the country,” Vinci said. Nationwide, about 1,600 grantees, which include nonprofits and local government agencies, receive federal Head Start funding.

Thousands Of Preschoolers Affected

According to the latest figures, slots for 51,000 preschoolers were eliminated along with child care slots for 6,000 babies. Children will lose 1.3 million days of service at Head Start centers. More than 18,000 employees will be laid off or see their pay reduced.

Head Start provides preschool services to 3- to 5-year-olds from low-income households. It also offers their families education, health, nutrition and social services. Early Head Start supports the families of infants and pregnant women. Supporters of the program say research shows that it offers substantial long-term benefits in educational attainment, earnings and crime reduction.

Head Start directors across the country have struggled to find ways to cut costs without reducing the number of children they serve. For instance, administrators have cut staff, ordered furloughs, trimmed pensions, shortened school years, ended summer programs and held fundraisers.

In many cases, though, there was no way to avoid shrinking their enrollment. In Indiana, at least two Head Start programs used lotteries to decide which preschoolers had to stop attending in March.

“I think it’s going to be devastating for families who were hoping ... for a year or two [of preschool] before their children got into kindergarten,” said Cheryl Miller, executive director of the Indiana Head Start Association. “These are families that are struggling already. They’re not going to be able to pay the cost of some other type of preschool program in their community.”

She added, “For all of us, as a nation, this should be heartbreaking."

Drastic Cuts In Transportation Services 

In Ohio, Peg Tazewell, executive director of Knox County Head Start, opted to increase class sizes from 16 or 17 students to about 20 rather than reduce the number of spots for children. In addition, she eliminated six positions, and reduced transportation for students. Parents now will have to drive their children up to six miles to a bus stop rather than have them picked up and dropped off at home. 

Some of the children will have to ride the bus as far as 20 miles.

Parents of the children at Tazewell’s center typically work low-wage jobs with irregular hours in nursing homes, fast food restaurants and construction. Tazewell worries some won’t be able to make the trip to drop off and pick up their child at a bus stop twice a day when the school year starts in September.

“I think what people should be aware of is that this is a cumulative impact to families,” Tazewell said. The average income for a family of four in her program last year was about $13,000 a year. “Think about what that means as the price of gas goes up, if parents are having to drive 12 miles a day. They tend to have cars with high mileage, their food stamps are being cut. It’s like a thousand cuts.”

In Colorado Springs earlier this year, Rachell Ruiz, 40, feared that her youngest child, a 2-year-old girl, would not be able to get into Head Start. The local program, Community Partnership for Child Development, had announced there would be fewer spots because of the budget cuts.

"People Need That Place" 

Ruiz is herself a graduate of Head Start. She wanted her daughter to be in the program because of the experience of her older daughter, who is now 4. Before Ruiz lost her job in March 2012, her older daughter spent her days with Ruiz’s mother and rarely had the chance to socialize with other children. There are few children in their neighborhood in Pikes Peak Park, where people from other parts of town are afraid to go. “They think they’ll get shot in a drive-by,” Ruiz said.

Now, after a year in Head Start, her older daughter is much more social. She has learned how to write her name and count to 20.

“Low-income people like me need that place,” Ruiz said of Head Start. “You don’t have money to go pay for play dates. You don’t have the money to go and pay for them to be in a gym or places like that.”

Ruiz eventually learned that both girls would have spots in the coming school year.

“The government doesn’t realize what it’s doing to ... lower-income [people],” Ruiz said. “They’re taking away what we don’t have. We barely have it and they’re taking away. It hurts.”

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