Head Start eliminated services to 57,000 children in U.S. as a result of sequester


Lead teacher Carmen Prybylski works with children Quinn Watson, left, 3, Sofia Coway, 2, and Kayla Lamour, 3, at Head Start's new building in Danbury, Conn. July 17, 2013. (Carol Kaliff/AP)

Head Start programs across the country eliminated services for 57,000 children in the coming school year to balance budgets diminished by the federal sequester, cutting 1.3 million days from Head Start center calendars and laying off or reducing pay for more than 18,000 employees, according to federal government data scheduled for release Monday.

The latest numbers, based on the results of “reduction plans” Head Start grantees submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services, fall short of earlier predictions by the Obama administration that 70,000 children would lose access to preschool because of the mandatory 5 percent cuts. But the cuts will still affect tens of thousands of poor families across the country who rely on Head Start for early learning programs, day care and a network of social services and medical care.

The initial administration projection was based on “a worst-case scenario” in which all reductions would focus on children’s access to Head Start, said a senior administration official who was unauthorized to publicly discuss the matter, because the information had not yet been released. In reality, grantees had some flexibility in how they cut their budgets as long as they maintained quality and prioritized children’s health and safety.

Some Head Start centers focused on cutting administrative and support services, such as transportation. Others chose to shorten the school year or the school day. The latest figures show that 18,000 program hours will be cut next year by centers that will start later in the day or end earlier.

Most programs did completely cut services to some children. The sequester “also impacted how many staff kept their jobs, how many dental screenings and health screenings are available and what happens to those families as we go into a new school year,” the official said.

Head Start and Early Head Start programs serve more than 1 million children from poor families across the country. The programs range from a tiny center serving Native Americans at the base of the Grand Canyon to major operations in New York City and Los Angeles.

Advocates say cuts to Head Start compound difficulties for families who already live on the margins.

California and Texas are cutting services to 10,000 children combined, according to the latest data, obtained by The Washington Post. Virginia is trimming nearly 1,200 spots, Maryland is cutting 460, and the District of Columbia is reducing its rolls by about 100.

Nationwide, the cuts comprise about 6,000 children in Early Head Start — for infants and toddlers up to age 3 — and 51,000 in Head Start programs.

Yasmina Vinci, executive director for the National Head Start Association, an Alexandria-based advocacy group, said centers worked hard to preserve the number of children being served. But she still sees a “troubling picture” for the program.

In some cases, whole communities are losing access to Head Start, she said.

A voluntary survey of 550 Head Start and Early Head Start grantees that the association conducted this year showed that more than a quarter planned to offer services in fewer locations, and 20 percent said they planned to cut transportation to some or all children because of the federal budget cuts.

A Head Start Center in Arlington County is reducing bus service this year, said Karen Allen, a program director in Northern Virginia. That means “some children will no longer be able to make it to Head Start,” she said, because their parents do not have reliable transportation.

Allen, who also oversees Head Start programs in Prince William and Loudoun counties, is also cutting back on the staffers that work on data entry and help connect families to social services. No students were cut from the program.

In Maryland, Head Start programs in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties that are operated by the school districts were spared cuts this year. Both places used local funds to back-fill the drop in federal spending — $400,000 in Prince George’s and $160,000 in Montgomery — so they could maintain the level of service.

Vinci said that in some cases, “better-off communities” or outside organizations were able to step in this year to help, one reason the effects of the budget cuts were not as dramatic as the projections.

“They found ways to fill the gap,” she said. But she worries how such solutions will play out in the future if the fiscal debate in Washington continues. “None of that is sustainable,” she said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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