Early Childhood

Head Start Centers Feeling ‘Sequester’ Pain

By Christina A. Samuels — May 14, 2013 5 min read
Teacher Kim Moore works with Janiya Hobby at the Claxton-West Head Start Center, in Knoxville, Tenn. Automatic federal budget cuts under sequestration are being felt at Head Start centers in Knoxville and elsewhere across the country.

When the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration went into effect in March, Margaret Molloy and her staff at a Head Start agency in the Tucson, Ariz., area started looking for places to make cuts.

Child-Parent Centers Inc., which oversees 40 centers serving nearly 2,800 children in the southeastern part of the state, made plans to scale back on classroom supplies, learning materials, and conference travel. Some center maintenance, such as painting, would be deferred the upcoming school year.

But with personnel costs taking up the largest share of the agency’s budget, the Arizona agency is also going to eliminate 160 slots in Head Start and Early Head Start when the program resumes Sept. 1, saving the cost of 10 teachers, six assistant teachers, and some administrative support staff.

“These are, by far, the most serious cuts I’ve experienced,” said Ms. Molloy, who has been involved for 40 years with Head Start, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The reduction in the number of children served through the program for low-income children will have a direct effect on schools, she believes.

“The emphasis on increased academic readiness for kindergarten is huge,” Ms. Molloy said. “Every child who doesn’t have an opportunity to be kindergarten-ready is really hurting the economy in the long run.”

Automatic Reduction

The sequestration cuts, which affect a broad range of federal programs, were put in place in 2011 as part of a deal to raise the country’s debt ceiling. The cuts were intended to prod lawmakers to make a long-term deal to address the budget deficit, but that never happened. Without congressional action, the budget will be reduced $1.2 trillion over the next decade, including $55 billion over 10 years from the hhs.

Assistant teacher Elizabeth Rollins watches children play at the Claxton- West Head Start Center, in Knoxville, Tenn. She has worked at the center for 10 years. Citing automatic budget cuts, the Knoxville- Knox County Head Start agency chose to end its service year two weeks early.

Head Start and Early Head Start serve nearly a million children and families. The programs were funded at nearly $8 billion in fiscal 2012, marking a period of extended growth due in part to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The sequestration cuts, which represent a 5.27 percent reduction for Head Start from fiscal 2013 spending, take Head Start funding back to approximately $7.6 billion, which is close to where it was in 2008. The administration has framed the reduction as the loss of 70,000 slots.

And while lawmakers have been quick to end a furlough of air traffic controllers because of flight delays, there has not been the same traction to stave off Head Start funding reductions.

“Our parents, like so many of us, use all their resources just to make do. They’re not hell-raisers as a rule,” said Joyce Farmer, the director of the Knoxville-Knox County Head Start program in Tennessee.

Paring Enrollment

But many parents are trying to make the impact of the cuts known.

Jolie Whatton has two children who have gone through Head Start. Her daughter Gavyn, 6, is finishing her kindergarten year and spent a year in Head Start. Her 2-year-old son Breyan has been enrolled in Early Head Start since he was 6 months old.

Ms. Whatton, who lives in Tucson, has helped her center collect 1,200 letters and signatures in support of Head Start and is trying to get a personal meeting with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Carmen Plascensia, 4, creates artwork during class at the Claxton-West Head Start Center, in Knoxville, Tenn.

She said that without Head Start, she would have to pay $1,000 or more a month for child care that doesn’t have the educational component that is embedded in the federal program. Losing 160 slots “is a huge cut for us. We feel lucky that we didn’t have to cut immediately,” she said.

Head Start grantees have some flexibility in how they will absorb the reduced funding in order to reduce the effect on children currently enrolled, including ending the school year early or starting the year later than planned. If at all possible, the Office of Head Start says that programs should try not to disrupt children who are currently enrolled.

Still, Head Start participants are feeling the impact of sequestration. Two Head Start programs in Indiana, for example, recently received publicity for removing 36 children this year through a random lottery.

Chuck Parr, the president of Riverbend Head Start and Family Services in Alton, Ill., said his agency, which serves about 950 children, made immediate cuts when the sequester went into effect. The agency, which runs centers in Madison County near St. Louis, ended its program year two weeks early, and all 12-month employees are taking four furlough days.

When the program year resumes, the agency also plans to close a center that housed a 68-child program. Thirty-four of those slots will go away; the remaining 34 will be transferred to a Head Start program a few miles away. The agency is also paring about 22 children from its Early Head Start rolls. The savings will total around $425,000, Mr. Parr said, but the reduction in spaces will mean that it will be even harder to move off the agency’s waiting list of about 300 children.

“Early childhood doesn’t seem to have the voice that other industries have,” Mr. Parr said.

The Knoxville-Knox County agency also chose to end its service year two weeks early, wrapping up its program last week instead of continuing through May 24 as planned, Ms. Farmer said.

The agency also plans to accept 70 fewer Head Start students in September. Ms. Farmer noted that the program was already turning away applicants; usually about 1,400 to 1,500 families would apply for the approximately 1,000 slots that the center once had.

Meleena Lamb has a 5-year-old son, Nathaniel, in one of the Knoxville centers. He started the program as a shy boy with some speech disabilities, but through the services he has received in Head Start, Ms. Lamb said she thinks he’ll be able to start kindergarten ready to keep up with his peers.

“He is a totally different child. His vocabulary has grown by leaps and bounds,” said Ms. Lamb. Her options in the area would be day-care centers “where they’re going to sit him in front of a TV,” and, at more than $100 a week, even that would be unaffordable for her.

“I just hope that the people who should be paying attention are paying attention,” Ms. Lamb said. “This is not about a balance sheet. These are children.”

Ms. Farmer, the director of the Knoxville-Knox County agency, said that she doesn’t anticipate a change in Head Start funding unless a congressional election brings in more lawmakers willing to compromise and end the sequester. But if more funding comes from the federal government, she said the center is prepared to quickly expand to enroll more children.

“There really will be better days,” Ms. Farmer said she tells staff members and parents.

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week as Head Start Centers Feel Sequestration Pain

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