Head Start limiting enrollment, cutting programs as sequester kicks in


Credit: EdSource Today

(This story has been updated with newly released data.)

Thousands of children across the state will be shut out of preschool in September as the federal sequestration cuts to Head Start take effect.

The across-the-board reductions to large portions of the federal budget were triggered in March, when Congress failed to reach an agreement on balancing the budget by raising revenue or making specific cuts. Head Start, the national child care and education program for low-income children, received a 5.27 percent cut that is just catching up to local programs now. It’s forcing most to enroll fewer children, lay off staff, shrink the school calendar and, in some cases, even close facilities.

In El Dorado County, five spots have been cut from the 125-child program. In Long Beach Unified, 178 fewer students will be served this fall. In Ventura County, 72 fewer children will receive services. And in Fresno County, 76 fewer children will begin at a Head Start preschool this fall.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education Head Start and its affiliates served 22,000 children in the 2012-13 school year. They’ll serve 900 fewer children in the upcoming school year – cutting off a vital resource for needy families, said Keesha Woods, the director of the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Head Start program.

“This may have been the only experience they would have of a hot meal and a research-based curriculum” before starting kindergarten, Woods said. “By us cutting services for that child, there are no other services in the county that parents can afford.”

Update: Head Start programs across California will serve 5,611 fewer children this school year, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start. About 112,000 children were served in Head Start last year. The California Head Start Association had previously predicted that 6,000 to 7,000 fewer students would be served this year. “The biggest surprise is that there’s no surprise,” said the association’s executive director, Rick Mockler.

The cut is likely to lengthen programs’ waiting lists. At least 74,600 more children were eligible for services based on their family’s annual income last year than were served. Head Start programs exist in every county in California.

Enrollment restrictions are just one impact of the cut, however. Many programs are also laying off staff, closing facilities, reducing salaries and shortening programs.

“We’re a fairly small program that runs pretty lean already, so we don’t have some of the layers that other Head Starts might have,” said Lynne Moore-Kerr, program director of Head Start and Early Head Start in the city of Alameda, which served 298 children last year.

Moore-Kerr and the Alameda parent advisory committee have closed one site, laid off an associate director and five teachers and reduced hours from 40 per week to 32 for nearly every employee. For classroom teachers already living on wages of $10 to $19 per hour, the cuts have meant that several are now looking for other work, Moore-Kerr said.

But all the financial gymnastics weren’t enough to maintain the size of the program. Eight fewer children will be served this year and 56 spots will be converted from full-day to half-day services. Moore-Kerr said some parents are considering leaving work or school so they can care for their children because the program can no longer provide them with full-day care. And center-based care is just one part of what Head Start offers to families living below the poverty line, Moore-Kerr said. The program also offers health screenings and meals to children up to age 5 and social services and parenting support to their families.

“It’s just incredibly sad when I have a parent who’s calling looking for support we used to provide and I have to tell them, ‘I’m so incredibly sorry but we don’t have the funds to provide what you need to help your child,’” Moore-Kerr said.

The Migrant Head Start program based in San Luis Obispo County will serve the same number of children next year, but had to cut two weeks off its class schedule to maintain enrollment of 2,000 children across eight counties, said program deputy director Ellen Pezo. The cut will have a significant impact on the community she serves, Pezo said.

“It’s huge,” Pezo said. “Part of what we do is keep children safe when parents are working. Now parents are leaving kids home with a relative (and children are) not having the education and socialization that’s just so critical.”

California Head Start leaders said they wished Congress had spared what they see as a worthwhile investment in the country’s poorest children and families.

“There has to be something different we can do than attacking our most vulnerable population,” Woods said. “If we keep robbing our cradle then we are not going to be a sustainable nation.”

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Email her or follow her @lrmongeau.

Filed under: 42, Early Learning, Federal Education Policy, Head Start, Policy & Finance

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16 Responses to “Head Start limiting enrollment, cutting programs as sequester kicks in”

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  1. Lillian Mongeau on Aug 19, 2013 at 4:17 pm08/19/2013 4:17 pm

    • 000

    Hi Paul,

    I don’t know the details of Alameda’s situation. The percentage of children cut varied depending on the program and on how they decided to apportion the cuts across their budget. There were several programs I spoke with that cut more than 5 percent of their slots and others that were able to cut far less. I was told by several program leaders that it depended how much wiggle room they had at the top. If they had enough managers that they could cut one and still meet guidelines for the ratios on managers to children , they could eliminate a larger chunk of change from the budget, fro example. Also, some programs are associated with larger county offices of education which could provide support through other funding streams, especially at the admin level. Small programs, like the one in the city of Alameda, seem to have been hit the hardest.

    As a reporter I obviously agree that transparency is best. Local Head Starts are required to produce an annual report. Based on reading previous years’ reports, I’m expecting the crop of reports from this year to have detailed information about how the cut was handled. Those should start coming out about 6 months from now.



    • Paul on Aug 19, 2013 at 8:13 pm08/19/2013 8:13 pm

      • 000

      Thanks so much, Lillian! Is there an online repository for these reports? For non-profits, the IRS 990 information returns might also give us some clues about real changes in revenue. –Paul

      • Lillian Mongeau on Aug 20, 2013 at 2:05 pm08/20/2013 2:05 pm

        • 000

        I haven’t found them collected in one place, but if you go to a specific agency’s website, the latest report should be available. At the bottom of my March 28 story on the sequester there is a list of all of the California Head Start providers.

  2. Paul on Aug 19, 2013 at 7:41 am08/19/2013 7:41 am

    • 000

    It was short-sighted to include this program in the federal budget “sequester”, but…

    The reductions in Alameda that receive so much attention in the article are on the order of 10 to 20%, which is out of proportion with a 5% cut in federal subsidies. Converting 60 of 300 spaces to half-time is like eliminating 30 spaces, which amounts to a 10% service reduction. Add about 3% for the 8 full-time spaces eliminated. On the staffing side, cutting almost everyone’s weekly hours from 40 to 32 is obviously a 20% reduction, and this comes before the elimination of 5 teachers and an assistant director, reductions whose additional weight we can’t calculate without knowing total staffing levels.

    Often, local non-profit agencies that depend on government contracts operate on an unsustainable financial basis, and blame structural staff and service cutbacks on reductions in government subsidies. I don’t know if this is the case at Alameda Head Start, but I don’t understand how a 5% reduction in revenue could, by itself, spur a 13% cut in service and a 20%+ cut in staffing. Transparency is better — for all stakeholders.

  3. Lillian Mongeau on Aug 15, 2013 at 10:28 am08/15/2013 10:28 am

    • 000

    Hi Paul,

    Head Start is a specific federal program. Head Start dollars do not fund various preschools, they only fund Head Start programs. Those programs are run by local organizations, usually county departments of education or non-profits, though sometimes school districts or other agencies like Chambers of Commerce get into the act. The program does provide center-based preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in many cases, but it also provides center-based care for younger children, home visiting care, health screenings and other support services for poor families. For example, one program director told me she’d helped a mother find affordable dental care though partnerships with businesses in their community.

    Though local programs certainly vary in quality to some extent, the concern about effect in this case is more often in reference to the Head Start program as a whole.

    As Gary points out above, studies that follow children to adulthood generally find large positive effects for preschool programs, including Head Start. Studies that end in elementary school generally find that children who attended preschool lose their academic edge somewhere between first and fifth grade. That’s been found in the randomized studies of preschool programs that the Obama administration cites as well. The common pattern in these studies of preschool effectiveness is: An initial bump, then a fade out of academic edge, then a long term benefit in terms of higher earned pay, more home ownership, lower rates of criminal behavior and that sort of thing.

    Hope that helps answer your question!


    • Paul Muench on Aug 15, 2013 at 2:05 pm08/15/2013 2:05 pm

      • 000

      Mostly, I’m still wondering if different Head Start programs have been studied to see variation in outcomes.

      • Lillian Mongeau on Aug 15, 2013 at 2:16 pm08/15/2013 2:16 pm

        • 000

        I haven’t seen studies of that sort. Starting in 2007, the feds have begun to require performance data on several metrics as a requirement for continued funding. It would be interesting to see what all that data looks like once it’s been collected for a while.

        • Paul Muench on Aug 15, 2013 at 6:37 pm08/15/2013 6:37 pm

          • 000

          Thank you

  4. Paul Muench on Aug 14, 2013 at 8:22 pm08/14/2013 8:22 pm

    • 000

    What does it mean for Head Start to be effective or ineffective? Isn’t Head Start the federal funding aspect of numerous different preschool programs? Can we divide the preschool programs that get Head Start funding into those that can be effective with allotted dollars and those thay aren’t?

  5. Gary Ravani on Aug 14, 2013 at 2:23 pm08/14/2013 2:23 pm

    • 000

    “Long-Term Benefits

    Head Start study finds long-term impact
    Despite doubts cast by previous studies of Head Start, a long-term study shows that a Head Start program of the 1970s, which was part of the National Planned Variation Head Start Project, helped participating young children achieve greater school success and avoid crime as they grew up. Earlier studies of the federal Head Start preschool program for low-income children and families, which began in 1965, found short-lived effects on children’s test scores, prompting the government to make program improvements.

    ► Principal investigator Sherri Oden noted, “These findings confirm that Head Start programs can have important long-term effects on the lives of the children they serve.”
    Into Adulthood: A Study of the Effects of Head Start, by Sherri Oden, Lawrence Schweinhart, and David Weikart with Sue Marcus and Yu Xie (2000), presents encouraging findings from a 17-year follow-up study of 622 young adults 22 years old in Colorado and Florida, who were born in poverty and did or did not attend Head Start as young children. The researchers located and interviewed 77 percent of the original sample of children.”

    A simple google search will find multiple reports–find a brief excerpt of one above–indicating the long term positive impacts of Head Start for economically disadvantaged children. It has been the long time stance of conservatives–see The Bell Curve–that expending public dollars for the benefit of disadvantaged and minority students is somehow a waste. This stance is obviously insidious and undermines our nation’s democratic ideals.


    • Manuel on Aug 14, 2013 at 5:21 pm08/14/2013 5:21 pm

      • 000

      Public dollars should not be spent on the poor.

      They contribute nothing to the wealth of this great country of ours. This is clearly demonstrated in this visual examination of who really contributes to our prosperity.

      Perhaps we should follow the very sage advice of the Most Reverend Dr. J. Swift in regards to the poor. If it worked then, it must work now.

      • Gary Ravani on Aug 15, 2013 at 2:32 pm08/15/2013 2:32 pm

        • 000

        I believe Soylent Green was the last iteration of J. Swift’s recommendations of how to deal with poor children.

        • Manuel on Aug 15, 2013 at 2:51 pm08/15/2013 2:51 pm

          • 000

          Gary, are you sure it wasn’t for how to deal with old people? I’m going to have to watch it again…

          • Gary Ravani on Aug 16, 2013 at 12:15 pm08/16/2013 12:15 pm

            • 000

            Not just the old, or the young, but the politically powerless who were forced to eat “soylent” because the economy left them no alternative. Recall the Edward G Robinson line “They’ve killed the oceans!” “They” being the economic and political forces of the time. I believe the metaphor works. Interestingly, the “political and economic forces” of our day are trying to do to the public schools what they did to the oceans of the film. Metaphor works there too.

  6. Ze'ev Wurman on Aug 14, 2013 at 1:44 pm08/14/2013 1:44 pm

    • 000

    Head Start had been found ineffective multiple times yet kept living — and growing — for years and decades. So I guess we should be saying (silently) words of relief that what rational politics couldn’t do, necessity did. One can find cheaper baby sitting elsewhere.

    Or am I not supposed to mention that, part of that “silent” stuff?


    • el on Aug 14, 2013 at 5:30 pm08/14/2013 5:30 pm

      • 000

      Ze’ev, please, I would like some pointers on how you find cheaper baby sitting. The reality IME is that our government preschool programs are pretty cost effective.

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