Education Funding

Head Start Supporters Fear Impact of Threatened Cutbacks

By Maureen Kelleher — March 15, 2011 5 min read

Supporters of Head Start are feeling under siege in the federal budget battle, fearing that the kind of deep cuts they’ve seen proposed in Congress would likely have ripple effects hurting state pre-K and after-school programs for elementary school children.

The program is administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but is considered an integral part of the government’s early-education efforts, offering low-income preschoolers education, health, and nutrition services. It dodged a proposed current-year cut of $1.1 billion, or 15 percent, in the U.S. House of Representatives’ budget bill defeated in the Senate last week.

But advocates also saw the defeat of efforts by Senate Democrats to boost Head Start’s budget to $7.4 billion, from the fiscal year 2010 total of $7.2 billion. That proposal was part of the Democrats’ competing budget bill, which also failed.

And supporters of the program are concerned that no proposal moving in Congress would address the losses Head Start—and particularly Early Head Start, which focuses on infants, toddlers, and low-income pregnant women—face when funds run out later this year from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Thanks to those federal economic-stimulus funds, Early Head Start nearly doubled the number of children and families served, but so far no provision has been made to maintain those seats.

Advocates are keeping pressure on Congress—and on the White House—to preserve or even expand funding for the Head Start and Early Head Start programs, which together enroll 965,000 children. For example, the National Head Start Association estimates more than 20 states have seen “stroll-in” actions, where Head Start parents and children in strollers visited lawmakers’ district offices to lobby to keep the program’s funding intact.

“Whatever their political persuasion, most Americans want greater investment in children,” said Michael Petit, president of Washington-based Every Child Matters Education Fund and a former commissioner of Maine’s Human Services Department.

High-Profile Target

Head Start, which is now in its fifth decade, has long been the subject of passionate support, as well as the target of criticism from those who question whether its results justify its costs.

“We’ve dumped billions into Head Start since 1965. If we cared about the academic achievement of low-income kids we would not relegate them to low-quality Head Start programs,” said Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, in Washington. She cited a 2010 evaluation of the program that showed most of children’s academic gains in Head Start fade out by the end of 1st grade. She argued that vouchers, instead, would offer low-income parents a choice among preschool providers.

However, Sara Mead, a senior associate with Bellwether Education Partners, in Washington, questions that assessment of Head Start.

“Head Start has a reputation as an ineffective program, when really the research is more mixed,” said Ms. Mead, also an independent blogger for Education Week, who writes Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook. But she agrees with those who warn about the combined impact on Head Start from a loss of stimulus funding and deep cuts. Taken together, that could result in “significant numbers of children losing services,” she said.

Head Start advocates reserved particular ire for the cuts aimed at the program in the failed House measure. On March 9—prior to the bill’s defeat—the Children’s Leadership Council, a nonpartisan coalition of 57 national children’s advocacy groups, estimated 218,000 children currently enrolled in Head Start or Early Head Start would lose their seats if the House budget is enacted.

“I’ve never seen a more reckless or short-sighted piece of legislation,” declared Mr. Petit, the Every Child Matters Education Fund president.

Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a longtime advocate of Head Start and chair of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions committee, said in a statement that “efforts to cut this funding are penny-wise and pound-foolish, as money we invest up front in our children’s future helps avoid costly problems down the road.”

Broader Worries

Advocates warn that Head Start cuts would have an impact beyond the children immediately affected. Because many preschool providers operate using both Head Start and state pre-K funds, “the cuts to Head Start could have a dramatic impact on state pre-K,” observed Marci Young, project director of Pre-K Now, a project of the Pew Center on the States, in Washington. “In some cases, cuts to Head Start could even jeopardize the existence of state pre-K programs.”

Providers can combine Head Start and pre-K funds in various ways, Ms. Young noted. For example, in a single classroom pre-K money could pay for a lead teacher, and Head Start could pay for an assistant. Or Head Start funds could be used to extend the day in a state pre-K program. “Cuts to Head Start may mean far less access [to state pre-K programs] for low-income children and lower quality,” said Ms. Young.

And while Head Start does not specifically include after-school programs, many centers supported in part by Head Start do offer such programs and worry that staff cuts hurt them, advocates say.

Providers are bracing for the impact of any cuts.

“That would be catastrophic for us,” said Ruth Kimble, who leads a network of about 100 small day-care centers and home day-care providers in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. “If we lose, say, 10 kids here, we can’t afford to keep a teacher or an assistant. It might not close a center, but it will reduce your staff. These kids will not get the learning opportunities they need.”

Ms. Kimble said that many of the providers in her network not only offer child care for preschool children, but after-school care for children ages 5 to 12. Head Start cuts could weaken or close those programs, too, she noted, because staff would be reduced.

Advocates are also pressing the White House to find a way to maintain the expansion of services made possible through stimulus funding.

Children’s Leadership Council President Matthew Melmed noted that even with the stimulus dollars, Early Head Start has barely made a dent in reaching eligible families. Since the program’s inception 15 years ago, it has served 3 percent of the estimated eligible population. “With ARRA increases we got to five percent. Now we’re looking at losing all of that,” he said.

Before taking office, President Obama pledged to quadruple funding for Early Head Start. In 2009, the program received $1.1 billion in stimulus funds, allowing the program to serve 55,000 more pregnant women, infants and toddlers. “We really hope that the White House puts a little skin in this game to defend this,” said Cornelia Grumman, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, based in Chicago.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Head Start Supporters Fear Impact of Threatened Cutbacks

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