Administrators of Head Start claimed that the federal preschool program was hit hard by sequestration, but not everyone thinks early education budget cuts spell disaster.
A government report released Monday found that 57,000 children in the Head Start program suffered a loss of services due to sequestration. A 5.27 percent reduction to the program’s budget forced administrators to lay off or cut pay for over 18,000 staff members.
Still, the number of impacted children fell short of the government’s initial estimates. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebellius claimed earlier this year that 70,000 children would lose access to preschool if sequestration hit.
And though the 5.27 percent cut amounted to a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s still little more than a drop in the bucket when Head Start’s total annual budget of over $8 billion is considered.
A spokesperson for an early childhood education advocacy group said outside organizations were able to supplement Head Start’s loss of funds, which staved off some of sequestration’s effects.
“They found ways to fill the gap,” said Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, in a statement to The Washington Post. But future budget cuts will inevitably worsen Head Start’s problems, she said. “None of that is sustainable.”
NHSA is encouraging supporters of Head Start to hold rallies this week across the country. The group wants event organizers to line up rows of chairs and fill a portion of the seats with children’s dolls. The empty seats represent kids who can’t attend preschool due to budget cuts.
But Rick Hess, education policy director for the American Enterprise Institute, said that while the cuts were lamentable for the affected families, early education is the U.S. is hardly doomed.
“The sky is not falling,” he said in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. “This is a modest reduction of Head Start programs.”
Many education experts who have studied universal preschool programs — including Head Start — have found scant evidence that the children enrolled in them go on to experience greater social or academic success than their peers.
Grover Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, summarized the findings of a comprehensive review of Head Start earlier this year by noting that the study’s authors could find little in the way of tangible achievements.
“There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start,” he wrote. “Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families.”
While children in preschool tend to perform better than other kids at first, these gains disappear by the fourth grade.
Hess agreed that Head Start’s impact on early childhood development has been minimal.
“Historically, over the decades there’s been little evidence that Head Start has made any sustained difference,” said Hess. “Education funding has increased significantly over the past ten or fifteen years and there are real questions about what the return has been for the taxpayer investment.”
Despite the opinions of the experts, President Obama has been vocal in support for Head Start and universal preschool programs. He has invoked the need for more early education efforts in several speeches this year, including the State of the Union and his recent address at Knox College in Illinois.
But if President Obama truly believes that funding preschool is a paramount policy goal, he should have shifted the sequestration cuts, said Hess.
“If he thought it was essential to protect Head Start, he could have suggested offsetting cuts in other federal programs,” said Hess. “He has not chosen to do that.”
Instead, Obama has pursued a policy of funneling money into pre-K programs through discretionary funding set aside in federal programs such as Race to the Top, and even Obamacare. (RELATED: Obama skirts Congress, funds universal pre-K through Obamacare)
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