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Head Start Dealt One-Two Punch Of Sequester And Shutdown

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Head Start advocates protest on Capitol Hill.
Emily Berman
Head Start advocates protest on Capitol Hill.

The government shutdown is hitting local families whose children attend preschools in federal buildings — buildings that are now closed. And it’s also having an impact on Head Start, the early-childhood education program started in 1965 to help low-income families. Head Start provides more than 1 million children with structured education, play, healthy food and free medical care.

Not all Head Start classes are impacted by the shut down, but the program is still reeling from our last budget standoff, which resulted in the broad spending cuts known as the sequester.

The sequester dealt the worst blow to Head Start’s budget in the program’s history, which means 57,000 fewer children are able to enroll in the Head Start programs across the country. And more than 18,000 staff salaries are being reduced, or eliminated entirely.

At a Head Start protest on the Capitol grounds this week, Head Start advocates, staff and parents gathered to protest the sequester cuts.

One of the protesters is Alonzo Hooks. He’s from Northwest D.C. and is a single dad.

“Without Head Start I wouldn't be able to work,” says Hooks. “[The program] helps the kids be able to learn, and they can be around kids their age. Rather than sitting around a relative’s house, they actually learning.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA began her career as a preschool teacher. Now, as chair of the Senate Budget Committee she says every dollar spent on early childhood development is an investment in a child’s future. When that investment is cut, “you may make that budget look a little better in the short run, but you are doing lasting damage to our children and the long term competitiveness of our country.”

Department of Health and Human Services estimates 97 fewer slots for children in Washington, D.C., 462 fewer in Maryland, and a drop of 1,189 in Virginia.

Tammy Mann, executive director of the Campagna Center, which operates all of the two dozen Head Start classrooms in Alexandria, says she was planning to cut one entire classroom. In the end, she didn’t need to. Alexandria stepped up to replace the exact amount cut from federal grants.

This year is covered, but Mann says she has no idea what could happen next year, which “creates certainly a state of uncertainty — it's not good for the community, it's not good for the families.”

In a similar move, earlier this fall, Fairfax County allocated money from the county’s Sequestration Reserve Fund to cover federal funding cuts to Head Start.

Maryland is one of about 20 states addressing these cuts at the state level, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Gov. Martin O’Malley approved $4.1 million for Head Start this year, which makes up for 80 percent of the federal cuts to programs throughout Maryland. Linda Zang, who oversees Head Start for the Maryland Department of Education, says she receives emails every day from colleagues around the country saying they wish they could get their legislatures to do the same thing.

“I think Maryland is really leading the pack in that area,” Zang says.

Despite the significant funding, Zang says, there’s still no telling what may happen next year.


[Music: "Subterranean Homesick Alien" by Rockabye Baby! from Lullaby Renditions of Radiohead]

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