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Head Start & The Sequester

Across the state Head Start programs are grappling with the federal budget cuts known as sequestration. Head Start is an early childhood education program that serves low-income and at-risk families. The across the board spending cuts that went into place last March are forcing these programs to cut their funding by over 5 percent. WYSO Community Voices Producer Hideo Higashibaba reports on how this cut will affect Head Start programs in the Miami Valley.

Head Start programs are federally funded, and free to eligible families. They focus on kindergarten readiness, but also support families in other ways. Children that go to Head Start receive mental and health screenings and there are programs for parents to help them with their child’s development and learning.

When it comes time to go to kindergarten, children who haven’t gone to preschool have a harder time keeping up with their peers who have. Low-income families often can’t afford to send their children to preschool, so programs like Head Start are especially important. Children with a Head Start background are much more likely to be successful in kindergarten and beyond.

Caseworker Amy Hawley has worked in Head Start for 20 years. In that time she has seen what a difference the program makes in families’ lives.

“I love what I do and I do have a passion for it and the people who work here do as well,” Hawley says, “I would hate to see cuts come because we do impact we do impact a lot of families and I would hate to see anyone get left behind.”

But some may get left behind; all over the country Head Start programs are closing classrooms. In Ohio, there will be 2000 fewer spaces for children in the programs and 300 people are losing their jobs. Still more are taking furlough days.

Hawley’s Head Start center in Fairborn is run by Council on Rural Services, which is laying off about 30 staff and lowering enrollment by about 160. This has many parents worried. Kim Drake’s son is a student here, and she is getting ready to put her daughter in the program in the fall. I asked her what her first reaction was when she heard that the sequester was going to affect Head Start programs.

“I was really scared,” Drake says, “My daughter’s getting ready to start here next year, and I have to think about that, you know, what am I going to do with her? It’s just going to be hard for everyone.”

Drake put her first child in Head Start so she could look for a job.  Since then she discovered that Head Start is much more than simple childcare. Head Start staff diagnosed her younger son’s ADHD and supported her while she learned how to care for him. Her older son is an honors student at his middle school and she’s sure it’s because he went to Head Start.

The sequester is permanent, but that doesn’t mean that funding for Head Start won’t be restored in the future. There are proposals at both federal and state levels to add funding for early childhood education to their budgets. These may or may not help Head Start directly. Peggy Lehner is a republican state senator from Kettering, who is working on getting funds added to the state budget for early childhood education. Even though this cut is the largest that Head Start has experienced, Lehner is sure that the lost funding will be restored to Head Start eventually.

“Nothing in the funding world is every permanent when it comes to Washington,” Lehner says, “Will this money come back? Not, you know, for these 2,000 kids, but hopefully the funding to Head Start will be restored in the months or, certainly at least, at the very least in the years ahead. I don’t think that anyone believes this is a permanent loss of funding that will never be restored.”

Even with these proposals in the works, the cuts had to be made without the expectation of the funding gap being filled in the future. Shirley Hathaway is the executive director of Council on Rural Services that provides Head Start to Greene County. She knows every community has been challenged by the recent economic difficulties, and cuts had to be made, but this cut seems especially harsh. It’s not just because it’s a large cut, but because it will hit the most vulnerable families the hardest.

“Anything that hurts the economy affects our families even bigger. I understand on both sides of the fence that we have to do something, but you always look at where you’re putting the most hurt, and families and children that can’t do a whole lot to help themselves out of their circumstance, if their children educationally are not going to do as well in school, then we’re not helping our nation across the board to have well educated adults,” Hathaway says.

For those who are eligible for Head Start in the next couple of years, the impact of the sequester will never be reversed. But the possibility of added funds at both the state and federal levels, mean that Head Start, and early childhood education, could get a boost in the future.