(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.