Denying a Head Start in Washington State

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A student in Washington State's Head Start program practices her writing. Courtesy of Washington Head Start.

To get a sense of just how foolish and shortsighted the $85 billion across-the-board sequester cuts are you don’t have to look any further than Head Start. The federal government’s only pre-K program, Head Start provides comprehensive, high-quality early education and support services to children and their families living in poverty.

“The results speak for themselves,” said Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP (WSA). “The research shows that kids who go through Head Start are more likely to be ready for kindergarten, less likely to need special education services and more likely to graduate from high school.”

All of that adds up to saving money over the long haul. But even before the sequester Head Start was reaching less than half of eligible children in the United States — and only 38 percent in Washington. Now, even fewer children will benefit from the program.

Figures are for Head Start and do not include Early Head Start enrollment. Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Congressional Justifications, Fiscal Years 2002-2014

Figures are for Head Start and do not include Early Head Start enrollment. Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Congressional Justifications, Fiscal Years 2002-2014

 
Estimates put the number of slots lost this year alone at 70,000. According to a recent survey by WSA, 68 percent of Washington State’s Head Start providers will be forced to drop children from their classrooms over the next few months as a direct result of sequestration.

“These cuts are happening now,” said Ryan. “A lot of directors have issued lay-off notices to teaching staff and kids are already getting dropped from programs. That’s going to get worse come September. Most of the impact right now is that they are closing programs earlier in the day, or closing earlier in the school year altogether, so families are needing to scramble to find some other place for child care.”

One place that has sliced a half-hour from its four-hour Head Start program is Snohomish County, where Robert Wheeler’s four-year-old daughter started attending class last October.

“When she started she could only identify the letters ‘i’ and ‘s’ but she couldn’t spell the word ‘is,’” said Wheeler. “Just over seven months later she’s reading at the kindergarten-first grade cusp — reading books and sight words to me. Her whole vocabulary has changed.”

Wheeler emphasized that it’s not just about the classroom and “learning your ABCs.”

“It’s about understanding the whole emotional, mental and cognitive support needed — and helping families understand it too — because the parents are with the kids more than the teachers are,” he said.

Wheeler said that while he has family members he can lean on to provide child care, he’s seeing how the shortened Head Start day is affecting the wellbeing of other parents and children.

“There are parents that work part-time who have had to cut their hours back,” he said. “And some full-time workers who were eligible for child care programs before and after school, and they’ve had to cut back to part-time. Some have even lost jobs and it’s just a downward spiral.”

Ryan also noted that you can’t isolate Head Start cuts from cuts in other programs — it all adds up to making life far more difficult for low-income families.

“It’s WIC programs, or fuel programs, or they are trying to go to school and their work-study is cut — the families we serve are being affected in a host of ways,” said Ryan.

But the biggest hit for Wheeler and his daughter might come in September when their Head Start program is closed for good. He said it’s a real loss for the entire community — the facility was built exclusively for Head Start in the 1970s.

“What lawmakers don’t understand is that it’s the way families and communities are working together as partners in Head Start that creates an even greater potential for children to succeed,” said Wheeler.

The closure of the center will directly affect 38 children, two teachers, three or four paid employees, and three salaried positions. Wheeler said he hopes three state-run early childhood education programs — called ECEAPs — will be able to absorb some of the children currently participating in Head Start.

“But there’s no guarantee,” said Wheeler. “ECEAP won’t take a Head Start kid if another kid has greater need.”

Ryan said that next school year not only will there be fewer Head Start classrooms and fewer students served, but most of the programs that survive the cuts will be opening later in the year, as late as October.

“That’s really putting these kids at a further disadvantage — they are already starting behind, Head Start’s job is to get those kids ready for kindergarten. They are going to be doing it in fewer hours, and with less staff to help them get ready,” said Ryan.

He adds that this is all happening as more kids are living in poverty, more are homeless and there is increased “adverse trauma and toxic stress” in struggling families.

“We see it in the rising number of child protective services cases,” said Ryan. “And as there is increased need for assistance, the federal government is cutting back and pulling services. It’s really a double hit to the gut of these kids and families.”

But Wheeler remains hopeful that media attention can make a difference in mobilizing citizens to demand a more sensible approach to the budget.

“If we reach out more to the public, I think we can make greater waves in the political realm,” he said.

Take Action

Today is the National Early Learning Day of Action. If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of early education programs and want to show your support, visit the National Head Start Association action page.

You can also participate in a tweet-chat starting at 2 PM ET, featuring Sec. Arne Duncan and Sec. Kathleen Sebelius discussing the importance of #PreK4All. Follow the Children's Defense Fund at @ChildDefender.


Greg Kaufmann is a freelance writer and Nation contributor covering poverty in America, primarily through his blog, This Week in Poverty. His work has also been featured on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, CBSNews.com, NPR.org, WashingtonPost.com, Common Dreams and Alternet. He serves as an adviser for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
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  • jabmyeyes

    Head Start is one of the most beneficial ways we can spend our tax dollars to make us a smarter country.

  • Anonymous

    We are cutting off our nose to spite our face. 2014….oust the Teabaggers!!!

  • Bethany May

    LOVE how my comment was deleted. It had no links, nothing in it that was breaking any rules. I do not get why, other than I was using my own experiences to point out that Head Start is and always has been a sham. I guess the journalist doesn’t like anyone exposing the truth, opposite his lies. ;) Take care…keep spreading the lies.

  • IAMROSE

    Makes me wonder who is going to fund all the PRIVATE Pre Schools? Want to bet it’s a corporation already set up that the GOP has already planned for? Just wondering…

  • John Smith

    Greg my boy – I gather you haven’t read any of the dozens of reports and studies and such which assert that the “Head Start effect” nearly evaporates by third grade. The money is mostly wasted. Turns out that Head Start cannot overcome lousy home environments and such, and is essentially wasted effort, but it does make people feel good, and that’s what’s truly important I guess.I know my attitude in favor of facts means I “don’t care about the children” – Lord, what a bum I must be! – but it would be easier to take your points seriously if you actually presented facts about the results instead of just writing another emotion-laden hack job. I see your work has been highlighted on Melissa Perry’s comedy show, Alternet, NPR and here you are with the doddering Bill Moyers, so your failure to actually engage in journalism is not much of a surprise. What are you folks going to write about when the rest of the country takes a look at what such programs actually accomplish?

  • John Smith

    You are absolutely wrong – but please don’t let that stop you. The results of Head Start do not support your claim.

  • Greg K.

    John, you mentioned a study that found that Head Start gains were lost by 3rd grade. There are a ton of methodological problems with that study–not the least of which is that some of the kids in it never went to Head Start (they enrolled, but only had to attend one day to be included in the study). Also some kids in the control group attended early ed programs including some Head Start programs. Bad schools in K-3 also play a role in losing some of the early gains. Many respected researchers have discussed the problems with the study and also stand by the DECADES of additional research showing that Head Start changes life outcomes in terms of increased graduation, earnings, lower incarceration,etc. http://www.nhsa.org/researchers_letter_to_congress
    The sweeping generalizations you make based on a single flawed study are problematic to say the least.

  • Greg K.

    John, you are referring to one particular study and there are a ton of methodological problems with it–not the least of which is that some of the kids in it never went to Head Start! (They enrolled, but only had to attend one day to be included in the study.) Also some kids in the “control group” attended early ed programs including some Head Start programs. Poor quality schools in K-3 also play a role in losing some of the early gains–those who attended better schools had lasting gains compared to children in lower quality schools. Many respected researchers have discussed the problems with the study and also stand by the DECADES of additional research showing that Head Start changes life outcomes in terms of increased graduation, earnings, lower incarceration,etc. http://www.nhsa.org/researchers_letter_to_congress
    The sweeping generalizations you make based on a single flawed study are problematic to say the least.

  • pezjme

    John, I have personally seen how Head Start can make a difference in a child’s life. I have been affiliated with head start for seven years and have seen multiple children start the program with no verbal or social skills. With just a couple of months they were completely different children. And Head Start isn’t just for children. They go out of their way to help the families too. They help parents get g.e.d s, drivers licenses and even American citizenship’s. The budget cuts in my county have already cut a whole program in a city that really depended on these services, cut all transportation for the county and cut multiple positions that most of the employees have had for for 5-10 years. I don’t know what studies you are referring to I have personally seen the good that Head Start has on the children and their families. Maybe you should take the time and go to you local Head Start and see for yourself before you judge something on what you read.

  • Anonymous

    The sequester cuts appear to be a callous strategy for cutting social programs. Air traffic control cuts were restored so as to not to inconvenience travelers, but as to a child’s future…? It is obscene we spend trillions on useless wars and national security to “combat terrorism” yet actions like these can adversely effect more American lives than terrorists could ever hope to. And the victims aren’t adults, they’re children. The concept of sequestration is insane. No one in their right mind, facing necessary personal spending cuts, would cut an equal percentage from all expenditures. It was a ploy. It is apparent that legislators supporting these kind of cuts disdain the poor.