About one out every 20 kids from low-income families in California are scheduled to be dropped from the Head Start program because of automatic sequestration cuts approved by Congress two years ago.
Although state officials are hopeful that the numbers are a worst-case scenario, the latest information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is that 5,611 children will be lopped off the school rolls this fall. Around 57,000 are scheduled to be cut nationwide, fewer than the 70,000 originally projected.
In addition to cuts in Head Start enrollment, various services are also being whacked. Besides feeding the kids two meals a day, Head Start provides a range of services including day care, social workers, health care and special help for children with disabilities.
Head Start provides pre-school for approximately 1 million children nationally who would not otherwise be able to participate in educational activities that educators have found crucial to later development. About 112,000 California children participated in Head Start last year, but another 74,600 who qualified for the help were not served, according to EdSource. Many were put on waiting lists.
Congress slashed more than $400 million from the $8 billion Head Start budget, using the same meat ax it used to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over a 10-year period. Lawmakers approved the indiscriminate hacking of domestic and military spending, with little regard for need, because they felt the incentive of calamitous budget cuts was needed to reach a more sensible accord on their own.
But Congress failed to revise the sequester, as Republicans refused to consider a balanced approach of budget cuts and revenue enhancements (through taxation and closed loopholes). The GOP is holding out for major cuts to entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, while resisting meaningful revenue changes.
The Los Angeles Times reported that education officials throughout the state are scrambling to cushion the blow by beefing up state programs, and quotes Russ Whitehurst, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, as saying these programs, “"should cover all the families who were eligible for Head Start.”
State lawmakers, flush with funds after the mild economic recovery, approved $25 million to fund 7,000 new slots for preschool programs.
That sounds promising, but Keesha Woods, director of the Head Start-State Preschool division of Los Angeles County, told the Times it wouldn’t be enough. “There is a vast difference between state and federal programs,” she said. State programs spend less than one-third of the $10,000- per-child federal assistance.
Arguing that less can be more, Whitehurst said the state programs are more effective because they are better aligned with state education systems and curriculum. That might be cold comfort to low-income families in Long Beach, Ventura County, Fresno County and Alameda County where the Head Start rolls have already been trimmed.