(This story has been updated.)
As the federal sequestration budget cuts kick in, Head Start providers across California are struggling to decide how to absorb the shortfall without hurting children.
For most programs, it boils down to a question of whether to cut school days or serve fewer children.
“It’s kind of like a ‘Sophie’s Choice,’” said Rick Mockler, the executive director of the California Head Start Association. “Do you diminish everyone’s education a little bit (by cutting days) or do you cut out some children altogether?”
Nearly 112,000 children attend Head Start in 101 programs across California. The programs, administered by different providers, are funded by federal grants that vary by program size and number of students served. On March 1, when the president signed the sequestration order implementing a series of cuts, Head Start grants were reduced by 5 percent for the 2013 federal fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2012.
The cuts come as Head Start, a massive national program that received $7.9 billion in federal funding in 2012, is facing renewed questions about its effectiveness. Head Start offers early education, health screenings, meals and parenting classes, among other services, to children age 5 and under whose families’ annual income falls below the federal poverty line. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the program, found that many of the initial academic gains made by Head Start students faded by third grade.
Critics are citing the study as evidence that the program, started in 1965 during Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, does not fulfill its promise of getting poor children ready for school. Head Start proponents counter that the positive results of many preschool programs aren’t seen until far beyond third grade, and say some of the blame for “fade out” should be shared by the K-12 system.
Against this backdrop, California Head Start programs are struggling to make cuts while maintaining quality. California receives more than $900 million annually in Head Start grants, more than any other state; California’s share accounts for 14 percent of national spending on Head Start.
The sequester cuts are hitting the state’s various Head Start providers at different times, based on the month their federal grants are renewed. Programs whose grants were renewed between the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1 and March 1, when sequester started, will have to reduce spending immediately – leaving many providers scrambling to trim from budgets that had already been finalized based on pre-sequester funding. The largest number of affected programs in this category were those awarded grants in January, according to data provided to EdSource Today by the U.S. Administration of Children and Families (see chart).
By contrast, centers whose grants will be renewed between April 1 and Sept. 30 will have their upcoming awards reduced by 5 percent. The largest number of renewals will be coming up in July.
The Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, which operates Head Start programs for more than 3,000 children in Fresno County, is one of the programs that must make immediate cuts. Program leaders there knew sequestration was a threat, but when their grant was renewed Jan. 1 they couldn’t be sure what would happen, so they operated as if they would have their full income for the year, said Head Start director Tamala Olsby.
Now, they’re dealing with a 5 percent cut to their annual $32 million budget that they will have to absorb in only nine months. Olsby expects the cuts they make, which have not yet been finalized, will affect children enrolled in programs right now.
Olsby said she could have avoided the impact on students if she had been able to plan for the cuts at the beginning of her budget cycle.
A 5 percent cut is significant for a program that already operates on a tight budget, she said.
“Let’s say they cut us .5 percent, we would not be cutting children,” Olsby said. “You just find that money. But 5 percent is too much money to not affect staff and enrollment.”
At the same time, other California Head Start providers are still operating on money from fiscal year 2012. Those with grant renewal dates from April
to September can continue operating at full steam until they receive their new grants for fiscal year 2013, which are expected to come in 5 percent short of their previous grant amount.
Child Development Resources of Ventura County, a nonprofit that administers Head Start services, will start operating April 1 on a grant of $12.3 million, down from $12.9 million.
“It will 100 percent guarantee fewer slots for children,” said Jack Hinojosa, the agency’s associate executive director.
Now, the Ventura agency provides early childhood education, health and nutrition services to 1,300 children in four programs that run from 128 to 210 days per year, depending on the program. Hinojosa said initial calculations indicated that they may have to trim their rolls by as many as 68 children, but a final course of action has not yet been determined by the leadership team. Instructions from federal officials are to serve the same number of children next year as are served now, Hinojosa said.
In San Luis Obispo County, where 1,000 children attend Head Start centers, the nonprofit agency that administers the program there is hoping to avoid limiting enrollment in its Head Start and Early Head Start program. Accomplishing that will probably mean eliminating two to three weeks of preschool classes from its 30-week program, said Bill Castellanos, the agency’s director of family and youth services.
Castellanos is worried how those cuts will affect students, but he’s even more concerned about the cuts he anticipates will have to be made to the full-day Head Start program for the children of migrant workers his agency runs in eight contiguous counties. That program’s grant renewal date is Sept. 1, which means Head Start leaders are still operating on money from federal fiscal year 2012 and will not have to absorb any cuts until next September.
“With the migrant children, (Head Start is) very critical,” Castellanos said. Since both parents in a migrant family need to work to get by, he said, their children have to stay home or go into the fields with their parents if they don’t have a safe place, such as Head Start, to go. Castellanos said he’d also seen instances where an older sibling stayed home from school to watch the younger children while the parents worked. Issues like these are what got the migrant program started, Castellanos said.
“Head Start has been doing so many things in terms of gains and now we’re going backward,” he said.
The 5 percent cut from sequestration adds insult to injury for many Head Start leaders in California who say their programs already lack the funding to serve all the children who are eligible for services based on their family income. Castellanos said there are always children who still need services when the migrant program shuts its doors at the end of the harvest season in October. Likewise, Olsby said there are twice as many eligible children in Fresno County than her program has the capacity to serve.
Statewide, only 60 percent of children eligible for Head Start services receive them, according to the California Head Start Association.
It’s ironic and extremely disappointing, said Ventura County’s Hinojosa, that three months after President Barack Obama made early childhood education the centerpiece of his State of the Union address, the largest federal preschool program in the country is losing funding.
“The evidence is so overwhelming that investment pays dividends long term,” Hinojosa said, adding that he wishes “Congress could have the same vision that the president has in making this a priority for the nation.”