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Last Week in Poverty: Denying a Head Start in Washington State

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 Washington's Head Start program.

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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.

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 4-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 childcare, 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.

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