UPDATE: March 5, 2013 – Five days into the sequester, Head Start administrators are still reporting that they have had no communication from the federal government about how or when the cuts will begin to affect their programs. EdSource Today will continue to follow this story.

Just weeks after President Barack Obama proposed a massive expansion of preschool in his State of the Union address, Head Start administrators are bracing for sequester cuts that could reduce enrollments by thousands of children.

Despite the looming cuts, Head Start operators have been given almost no guidance from the federal government as to how to plan for the possible cuts, or how or when they would be affected.

Toddler looking at camera

A student in an Early Head Start program in Hayward looks up from an art project. EdSource/Lillian Mongeau

If the sequester goes into effect on March 1, it would result in a 5.1 percent across-the-board cut for numerous federally funded programs like Head Start. That would translate into a loss of $48 million out of $961 million currently spent on programs in California. The California Head Start Association estimates a cut of that magnitude could push out as many as 6,000 of the state’s 112,000 Head Start students.

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, the federal agency that oversees Head Start, was unable to provide details on what operators can expect. “It depends on the grantee – Head Start grants are distributed throughout the year,” was all Wolfe wrote in an email to EdSource Today.

“Basically, if you’re running a program, you’re making a bet about what you think the government is going to do,” said Rick Mockler, executive director of the California Head Start Association.

Regardless of how the cuts are implemented, said Mockler, they would have an impact. “For all practical purposes, a 5 percent cut is going to translate into a 5 percent cut in services to children,” he said. “There’s no way to finesse that.”

Begun in 1965, as a signature program of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiative, Head Start is funded entirely by the federal government. As a result it has been spared the impact of the budget cuts state-funded child-care programs have experienced over the past 5 years.

That could change on Friday.

Luis Gonzalez, director of community affairs for the Head Start program in San Diego, said a 5.1 percent cut in federal funding would mean losing spots for about 400 students in his program alone. With an enrollment of 8,085 children, San Diego’s program is one of the largest in the state.

Like others around the state, administrators in San Diego have yet to be told about the mechanics of how the government would implement the cuts.

One source of the uncertainty is that every Head Start program has an annual grant renewal date on which they receive an award letter from the federal government. The renewal date varies from program to program. After they receive their award letter, they are able to “draw down” funds as they need them to cover expenses.

It is unclear if the federal government will simply offer Head Start programs a smaller annual grant when their renewal date comes up or if programs must reduce their spending as soon as the sequester goes into effect and begin drawing down fewer funds as of March 1.

San Diego’s grant renewal date is June 30. Gonzales hopes that means his program won’t have to make any cuts before then. “What we believe to be the case is that between now and June 30, we’ll be fine,” Gonzalez said. But he said he is not completely sure that’s how it will work.

In Stanislaus County, the Head Start program’s grant renewal date is March 1, the same day the sequester is supposed to go into effect. Head Start administrators there are still in the dark as to what that might mean for them. “What I know is that we don’t know,” said Janet Orvis Cook, executive director of the Child and Family Division of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, which oversees several Head Start programs.

Kostas Kalaitzidis, the spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which runs the largest Head Start program in the country, is similarly mystified. “We don’t know how the sequester would come down,” he said. “We don’t have enough information.”

Carolyn Chu, a fiscal analyst in California’s Legislative Analysts’ Office, said it’s no wonder program operators are confused. “One reason they’re not sure about the mechanics is that the sequester was never designed to go into effect,” Chu said.

Orvis Cook said her primary concern is that the children she serves are from families too poor to pay for alternative care. For example, the Migrant Head Start program administered by her county stands to lose slots for 154 of the more than 3,000 children it currently serves. These families may have to take their children with them when they go to work in the fields – or risk losing their jobs, she said.

Orvis Cook said talking about cuts in terms of numbers doesn’t convey what they would mean for specific children, such as the autistic boy who receives special services from one of her Migrant Head Start centers in the Central Valley. He and other children like him do not have any other options for the kind of care Head Start can provide, Orvis Cook said.

Teacher reading to little kids

Migrant Head Start teacher Gabriela Mora reads to children in the preschool room at the Hughson Child Development Center outside Modesto. EdSource/Lillian Mongeau

“We have to bring the issue down to a single child’s face and what it means for that child and that family,” Orvis Cook said.

The LAO’s Chu said talking about the number of children who will be dropped from Head Start creates “a compelling narrative” but there may be ways to absorb the loss of federal funds other than dropping children from the program.

The California Head Start Association’s Mockler said he wasn’t sure that would be possible given the requirements Head Start programs must satisfy in order to qualify for funding.

Many Head Start advocates believe the only solution is to avoid sequestration altogether. Nearly 13,000 of them have signed a petition posted online asking Congress to do just that.

“Rather than making indiscriminate cuts on the backs of children who can ill afford it, Congress needs to work together to stop the sequester and replace it with a balanced plan that addresses the long-term deficit and keeps faith with our children’s future,” said Aaron Albright, a spokesperson for Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce committee.

The worst part, Mockler said, is that California Head Start programs are currently only able to serve 60 percent of children eligible for services. “Head Start offers a service that the state is not equipped to replace and that the state isn’t currently providing,” Mockler said.

On average in California, children cost the federal government nearly $10,000 a year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. But Head Start advocates argue that cost is a worthwhile investment and a needed social service for America’s poorest families.

If the federal government cuts the funding for services to these families, Mockler worries, there is no safety net in place in California to catch them.

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