A Head Start teacher and students in class in California. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

Head Start received a reprieve Tuesday under the new Congressional budget agreement that would restore some of the funding cut from the national child care program last spring.

Head Start lost about 57,000 slots for children, including more than 5,600 in California, because of cuts under federal sequestration, a program of automatically triggered, across-the-board spending cuts. These cuts have continued to ripple through Head Start operations month by month as they cycle through their federal grant processes.

“It’s good news, in that we will not see additional cuts this year,” said Rick Mockler, executive director of the California Head Start Association. But the deal, which must pass Congress and be signed by President Barack Obama, won’t fully restore the 5.27 percent cuts to California Head Start programs made under the sequester, he said.

“We don’t have a (budget) number yet,” said Mockler, noting that it might be a restoration of about 50 percent of the cut funding. Funding for programs is to be decided in the next few weeks, as appropriations committees in Congress work to allocate spending under the new agreement, if and when it is passed.

Head Start, which serves about 106,000 California children, has been operating in a degree of fiscal uncertainty since Congress failed to pass its 2014 budget in October, triggering a brief shutdown of many government operations. This new budget agreement, negotiated by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is an attempt to avoid another budget shutdown slated for Jan. 15.

Head Start is a favorite program of Murray, a former preschool teacher, and while advocates for early childhood education were pleased that cuts to Head Start would be mitigated, they expressed mixed emotions about the budget agreement overall. Early childhood education, which President Obama has called for greatly expanding in a program called Preschool For All, did not receive the prominence advocates would have liked, said Andrew Brenner, spokesman for the First Five Years Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for early childhood education.

“All of the rhetoric surrounding the budget negotiations is focused on trying to make the economy healthy in the long term,” Brenner said, “and when you look at options for government spending there are very few programs, if any, that have shown to have the short, medium and long term return on investment that early childhood education has.” He cited research by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman on the cost-effectiveness of investing in young children, research that also is touted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Studies have shown that children who attend preschool have higher high school graduation rates and lower rates of criminal activity, providing a long-term societal benefit.

Still, Brenner noted that language in the budget agreement signaled a desire to make early childhood education a priority and left room for appropriations committees to invest in Early Head Start and other education programs, such as those under the recently introduced Strong Start for America’s Children Act legislation, sponsored by Rep. George Miller, D.-Martinez.

Science of Early Childhood, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University,

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