Tanya Lee

Every Native American Child Left Behind: Sequester Guts Indian Education

Educators in Indian country are working feverishly and creatively to deal with the cuts to federally funded preschool-to-grade 12 programs mandated by the so-called “sequester.”

The sequester, a series of automatic federal spending cuts totaling $85 billion in 2013 and $109 billion for each year from 2014 to 2021 for a total over $1.2 trillion in debt reduction [when savings on interest payments are included], was authorized by the Budget Control Act of 2011. It went into effect in March because Congress could not agree on a budget that would reduce deficit spending by $2.4 trillion over the next decade as part of the effort to deal with the country’s nearly $17-trillion debt.

Head Start, intended to promote school readiness in children from birth to five years old from low-income families by supporting their cognitive, social and emotional development, serves 1 million children a year nationwide. The program was developed in the mid-1960s as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Sequestration is expected to knock out five percent of Head Start funding across the board, even though most Head Start programs cannot currently accommodate all families who apply, according to the Health & Human Services Department’s Administration for Children & Families, under which Head Start operates.

Approximately 70,000 children are expected to lose access to the program because of these cuts.

In 2013, Head Start programs nationwide will take a $406-million hit as a result of the sequester. Of that amount, nearly $12 million will come from Indian Head Start, according to the National Indian Education Association. Melissa Harris, director of the Catawba Indian Nation Head Start in South Carolina, is proud of her program, which serves 80 children, most of them from the tribe, at one center on the reservation, for the full year. She says the sequester is devastating her program. “Right now, we’re downsizing from five days of service to four days for the summer.”

Not only will this reduction affect the children’s preparation for school but, Harris adds, “we’re concerned about meals. We serve two meals a day. On Fridays, will the children have a meal? Will they be watched by siblings or adults? Every weekend this summer will be a three-day weekend and we’re not sure the children’s basic health and safety needs will be met.

“We recognize the responsibility to get the U.S. budget in order, but this is not where you start, at the foundation of our children’s lives.”

Of the $12 million in cuts Indian Head Start must deal with, more than one-tenth, or $1.4 million, will come from the Navajo Nation’s program, which serves 2,115 children in Early Head Start and Head Start and through home-based education activities. Director Sharon Singer notes that it costs more to serve rural areas, which often do not have accessible services and where transportation is always a challenge. “We’re looking for ways to cut costs and still serve our children and families,” she says.

The Navajo Nation began restructuring its Head Start program in November 2012 to build a high-quality program. That initiative will help cope with the funding cuts. “As part of the restructuring program,” says Singer, “we expect to reduce employees by 30 percent. We’ll combine positions and hire highly qualified teachers who can each be responsible for more children. And we’ll streamline our program, cutting out middle management and offering direct services to children and families.”

For now, says Singer, the Head Start program will be able to continue serving the same number of children, but further funding cuts will affect services. “Head Start provides a continuous program from Early Head Start to Head Start to kindergarten, which is so critical now that Common Core standards require that children be able to read by third grade or not be promoted. Our job is so important. It provides the foundation in learning and literacy for our children.”

The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon’s Head Start program will take a much smaller cut—$48,000, but its program is smaller and the impact will be serious. DeAnn Brown, director of the program, says they will close one week early this year and start two days later next, and they will need to cut supplies to classrooms and teacher training dollars.

Brown says her program serves 112 children and about the same number of families. It is a center-based Head Start program with seven classrooms. The program operates 3.5 hours a day, 4 days a week during the school years and serves both breakfast and lunch. “The cuts will be felt by everyone,” she says. “It’s only a week, but families are still dependent on Head Start for childcare. They’ll have to make other arrangements for that week. A week’s worth of childcare is a lot for our families.” Another concern, again, is nutrition. “Children rely on Head Start for two-thirds of their nutritional needs four days a week. Some kids might not get the nutrition they count on when Head Start is not operating for those days.

“We hope there are no further cuts. As it is, we still don’t serve all the kids we could. Further cuts would impact our enrollment. We hope there aren’t any.”

The $12 million in cuts to American Indian Head Start programs is not just a matter of consequence for the nation’s tribes. National Indian Education Association President Heather Shotton says, “When the federal government does well by our Native children, it does well by everyone’s children…. When budget cuts hurt the education of Native children, they harm education for everyone’s children.”

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