“Who Are We Really Affecting With All These Cuts? It’s The Future”

I spent yesterday morning at the Center for American Progress (CAP) where a panel discussed sequestration’s effects on the Head Start program and the thousands of kids harmed by cuts to it. The panel was moderated Christina Samuels from Education Week and included participants from CAP, the Head Start Program, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

Carmel Martin, the Executive Vice President for Policy at CAP, and Yasmina Vinci, the Executive Director of the National Head Start Association, kicked off the program by running through some of the numbers about sequestration’s harmful effects. More than 57,000 kids have lost access to Head Start, including 6,000 infants and toddlers and 51,000 3-4 year olds. Another 87,000 kids have fewer days to attend Head Start, with programs cutting an average of 15 days per child. Yet another 11,000 kids have shorter days (approx. 1.5 hours less each day). Head Start was allowed some flexibility in their cuts and they passed that flexibility on to individual programs. Thus, some programs decided to cut days altogether or eliminate transportation to and from the site while others laid off employees or kicked students out.

But that flexibility will end in 2014, when more scheduled cuts are due to take effect. Colleen Rathgeb, the Director of Policy at Head Start, warned that future cuts will harm children even more.

“These one-time fixes aren’t available in the future,” she said. “This is unsustainable.”

The sequester cut Head Start by 5.27% – equal to $405 million – and more is coming next year unless Congress finds a way to make a deal that undoes the law.

Yet, while the cuts have been steep, they have caused less damage than expected. In February, the White house predicted that 70,000 kids would be kicked out of the program. Fortunately, “only” 57,000 actually have been. Of course, that number will certainly grow next year if the cuts aren’t replaced. And while most of the panelists offered optimistic takes that Congress will find a way to undo the sequester, Michael Linden, the Managing Director for Economic Policy at CAP, offered a more negative view:

“It’s also important to note that while there’s a growing awareness among some policymakers that sequestration is bad, others are saying that it wasn’t as bad as expected to be,” he said. “They have to understand that sequestration is not the status quo.”

Martha Coven, the Associate Director for Education, Income Maintenance and Labor at OMB, emphasized that the Obama Administration does not support the sequester  and is determined not just to undo those cuts, but to add additional funding for early childhood education.

“One thing to be very clear: the cuts to sequestration and Head Start in general were very much not part of the Administrations plan,” she said. “We’re very much trying to put ourselves on a path to reverse that. Moreover, our plan for early education is very much one of investment.”

Investment was a major theme throughout the discussion, with all of the panelists noting that funding for Head Start was not about the present, but was about the future. Head Start has a strong record of improving the quality of neighboring early childhood programs as well, said CBPP’s Sharon Parrott. In addition, states have trouble funding programs like these as they face different budget restrictions than the federal government does, Coven added. For that reason, it’s important for the federal government to fund Head Start and other such programs.

Yet, Congress is gridlocked and the federal government’s budget expires on September 30th. If it can’t reach a deal by then, the government shuts down. And any deal on a budget will have to figure out what to do with sequestration’s cuts. If Republicans and Democrats can’t come to an agreement and instead pass a continuing resolution that keeps the government funding at current levels, Head Start will have to start looking ahead to cuts it will have to make in 2014.

Linden summed up the dangers of the sequester’s effects on Head Start the best:

“Who are we really affecting with all these cuts? It’s the future.”


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