Two years ago, federally funded early learning providers in California were forced to reduce the available slots for 6,000 incoming students after a gridlocked Congress could not agree on how to reduce the deficit, triggering a round of automatic spending cuts to Head Start and other federal programs across the nation.
“It was devastating,” said Linda Kaercher, Head Start director for the Merced County Office of Education, which lost 64 of the 1,000 slots for incoming students that it served at the time. The cuts included closing a center with 12 students, who were moved to other programs, she said.
Today, the picture in California is decidedly brighter. There is more money, and enrollment in programs, particularly for children from birth to age 3 who are in Early Head Start, is rebounding across the state.
“We lost close to a year’s worth of funding for five percent of the children,” said Rick Mockler, executive director of the California Head Start Association. “Thousands of children in the state didn’t have services, and most of them were 4-year-olds who missed nearly a year of preschool.”
California is receiving $65 million in federal grants this year to boost Early Head Start enrollment by about 4,000 full-day slots. It will also use that money to improve the quality of its programs for infants and toddlers, according to the California Head Start Association.
Last year, in a display of unity, Congress restored Head Start’s total funding to $8.6 billion – the level prior to the 2013 budget cuts, known as the sequester, which slashed Head Start funding nationwide by $1 billion. California is receiving nearly $1 billion this year for Head Start programs, which serve children ages 3 to 5 years old, and Early Head Start programs.
The Early Head Start grants and other Head Start funding expected later this year will boost the number of slots in the state to 115,000, – about 4,000 more slots than before the sequester cuts, said Rick Mockler, executive director of the California Head Start Association.
“Our numbers are back up,” Mockler said. “There are new grants this year, which Congress approved.”
Still, Head Start programs in California serve only 45 percent of eligible children who are 3 and 4 years old, and Early Head Start programs serve only 3 percent of eligible infants and toddlers.
During the 2013 sequester, directors of Head Start programs in the state “experienced an outpouring of support from the general public and members of Congress who were sorry about Head Start being caught up in the sequester,” Mockler said. He is hoping to avoid a repeat in the future.
“We lost close to a year’s worth of funding for five percent of the children,” Mockler said. “Thousands of children in the state didn’t have services, and most of them were 4-year-olds who missed nearly a year of preschool.”
The most significant development in California is implementation of the new Early Head Start Child-Care Partnerships and Early Head Start Expansion grants, which are going to 31 community providers, allowing them to increase enrollment and improve the quality of care to children from birth to 3 years old.
Early Head Start providers who are awarded the grants in California are for the first time working with licensed childcare centers and caregivers who provide childcare from their homes. Infants and toddlers in those programs receive regular visits on site, from social workers who determine whether the children are physically and mentally healthy, are getting proper nutrition and have received required immunizations.
The $500 million allotted nationwide for the Early Head Start grants is part of President Obama’s Early Learning Initiative, which aims to improve early learning programs for the nation’s poorest families – those who earn less than $24,250 a year for a family of four.
Merced County’s Office of Education just received a $1.8 million Early Head Start grant, and other applicants in California are expecting to be funded by the end of March.
Families in Merced County’s Early Head Start programs receive regular home visits from credentialed social service workers who teach them a variety of parenting skills. Twice monthly, families in the program meet to share their experiences raising children.
“It is very exciting to be in a different climate now, where we have money,” Kaercher said.
The early childhood grant makes it possible for the county to expand enrollment by 64 slots – coincidentally, the same number that were lost as a result of the automatic budget cuts two years ago – and open a new center at an elementary school. The funding will boost total enrollment in Head Start and Early Head Start programs in the county to more than 1,300 children.
In Berkeley, an Early Head Start center run by the YMCA hopes to be awarded one of the Early Head Start grants in the coming weeks. It also is funded by a $40,000 private grant from the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund to teach preschoolers about science.
Last year, the focus was water. This year, it is about making structures, with lessons that help build vocabulary related to the subject, such as “cubes” and “cylinders,” said Pamm Shaw, the program director.
“It is very exciting to be in a different climate now, where we have money,” said Linda Kaercher, Head Start director for the Merced County Office of Education.
One of the largest Early Head Start partnership grants in California is a $4.4 million award to help 260 infants and toddlers with special needs in nine rural Northern California counties. The recipient is the state Department of Education, which in the past has not been involved in Head Start because it typically directs funds from Washington straight to local recipients.
Head Start began in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program. In 1995, during the administration of President Bill Clinton, the first Early Head Start grants were disbursed.
The average annual cost for a Head Start child in California is $8,500, which includes care and health screening, according to the California Head Start Association. For Early Head Start kids, the cost is higher, averaging $11,500 a year. About 60 percent of Head Start and Early Head Start teachers in California have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Congress created the sequester in the Budget Control Act in 2011, which required total budget cuts of $1.2 trillion over nine years, beginning in 2013 and ending in 2021. Congress passed legislation in 2013 that lifted budget caps for defense and non-defense spending through the end of the 2015 fiscal year, which is Sept. 30.
However, Head Start programs are not entirely out of the woods. This month, President Obama proposed raising spending in his 2016 budget for defense and non-defense domestic programs by $74 billion more than the limits set in the Budget Control Act. Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, said Obama’s proposal would exceed spending ceilings and raise taxes.
“It’s a roller coaster,” Mockler said. “There is a threat of a sequester again. We are nervous.”