Head Start Programs Brace For Budget Cuts

02/21/13 7:31AM By Charlotte Albright
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VPR/Charlotte Albright
Snow covers the playground at the Lyndonville Head Start Center. Federal budget cuts could lower enrollment.

Unless Congress acts to prevent it, many federally funded programs will face severe budget cuts beginning March 1. That's the date the budget-cutting plan called the "sequester" kicks in. Among the targets likely to be hard hit in Vermont is Head Start, an early education program for low-income families.  

In Vermont, there are four early Head Start programs serving pregnant woman and their children under three, often with home visits. There are seven classroom programs serving mostly low-income pre-schoolers. Sue Bates manages the Lyndonville Center's full-day, year-round program.

"We're talking about programs closing, families not getting services; everything that we do to help our most vulnerable population in this country is what Head Start stands for," Bates said.

Bates expects the sequester to happen. If it does, she and  two morning teachers will be laid off for eight weeks over the summer, meaning it could be hard to keep the center running then. Early Head Start visits to homes will be curtailed. She chokes up when she talks about her staff.

"We have very committed staff members, very educated staff members, that have chosen in their life to work for Head Start when they could have worked in school systems and making triple," she said.

The chair of  Vermont's Head Start Association, Paul Behrman, also directs the Champlain Valley Head Start program. He says the federal government has provided very little information about how the cuts would be made, or when-but he estimates that Vermont would lose about 8 percent of its Head Start funding. 

"If we were looking at those sorts of cuts we are probably looking at anywhere from 150 to 300 children and their families losing the program...at a minimum. Vermont only serves 1,600 children and families through Head Start and Early Head Start, so that's a pretty big proportion," Behrman said.

It's not that kids will be turned away at the door on March 1. Behrman says the cuts would take effect over time, depending on how each program in Vermont schedules its fiscal year.  An analysis of the impact by the US Senate Appropriations Committee finds that 39 Head Start jobs would be lost in Vermont. 

In an email, a spokesman for the Head Start program in Washington says "There are no details yet on a projected timeline, or the logistics involved. " That uncertainty, says Association Chair Behrman, makes planning almost impossible.

"So this would be a scenario that none of us are familiar with and we don't know ultimately how it would play out," Behrman said. 

Head Start detractors say the cost of the program outweighs the benefits. But supporters say that without Head Start children will spend more time at home watching television, and their parents will find it harder to find and keep gainful employment. 

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