ST. ALBANS — Federal budget cuts, known as the sequester, are decreasing the already limited spaces in the national and state Head Start preschool programs.
In northwest Vermont, 71 slots for Head Start have been cut heading into this school year, said Paul Behrman, director of the Champlain Valley Head Start program which serves Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle and Addison counties. In Franklin County, 10 preschool slots have been eliminated between the start of the 2012-2013 and the upcoming school years, he said.
The eliminated preschool slots are a result of $800,000 in cuts for Vermont’s Head Start and Early Head Start — a similar program for pregnant mothers and infants and toddlers up to two years old — programs.
According to statistics provided by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s office, the state cuts represent 5.27 percent of Vermont’s Head Start budget.
Throughout the state, Behrman estimated between 150 and 200 children and their families will lose program eligibility. Sanders’s office estimated the number to be about 233 children losing out on Head Start.
Behrman said children and their families weren’t the only ones affected by the cuts. The Champlain Valley Head Start had to lay off seven full-time employees, as well as reducing the hours for 10 other employees.
“Every job matters when providing direct service to young children,” said Behrman. “This is not the direction we should be going.”
While the local numbers seem small, especially compared to the estimated 57,000 preschool slots cut nationwide, Behrman said the impact isn’t insignificant.
“It’s a pretty big hit for a small state like ours,” he said. “We’re serving the most vulnerable kids and families in the state.”
The Head Start program is available for those low-income families, Behrman said, that might not be able to afford putting their children through traditional pre-school programs. Beyond the intensive curriculum that fully prepares children for kindergarten, he said the program, for many low-income families, is a key link to other important social services.
While not providing direct care to children, Behrman said Head Start works with families to schedule doctor and dentist appointments. The program also connects families to other important social services such as the food shelf and housing assistance, he said.
“It’s not simply childcare,” Behrman said. “We’re the program that’s working with low-income families making sure these global needs are met.”
Although the numbers might seem of little consequence, Behrman stressed that Head Start provides those connections for entire families, making the number of individuals losing out on a vital service even higher.
Even before the latest round of cuts, the Head Start program on a national and statewide level wasn’t serving the full population of families that needed to send children to federally funded preschool, Behrman said. Nationally, only about half the eligible population was being served by Head Start.
Early Head Start, which connects pregnant mothers with crucial services and works with infants and toddlers, is an even newer program than Head Start, which was founded in 1965. Early Head Start was launched in 1995 at a much smaller federal level, Behrman said, serving about 5 percent of eligible families.
With the programs already being unable to serve a full range of needy families, Behrman would like to see a more positive trend.
“The program really should be in expansion mode,” he said.
Behrman said providing free preschool along with the social services aspect is more than worth the cost the federal government would have to pay to provide substantial universal Head Start. He said simple cost-benefit analysis shows the detrimental impacts to society when children aren’t getting off on the right foot. Children who are slow to develop at an early age, he said, risk costing a community more in terms of special education or, in a worse case scenario, in judicial and corrections costs.
“It’s lunacy for there to be cuts,” Behrman said. “Do we want to be investing in kids and families now? It’s a worthy investment at the front end for a quality of life in communities in the long-run.”
In the Franklin Central Supervisory Union (FCSU), four year olds have access to universal preschool, said Interim Superintendent Julie Regimbal. With Head Start programs offered in the FCSU and other Franklin County school systems, she said the impact, while not ideal, was spread out across local school districts.
Head Start’s cuts are just part of a long string of programs seeing reduced funding as part of the sequester, Berhman said. He said politicians in Washington didn’t put any thought into the adverse effects the cuts would have on families and communities that rely on programs such as Head Start.
“It just makes no sense,” Behrman said. “I think there are plenty of other places that we could reduce.”
The Head Start program in Vermont is primarily funded through the federal government, Behrman said, with the state having no dedicated line item in its annual budget for the program.
He said he would like Vermont to start moving in the direction some other states have, by using the federal funding to support a state-dedicated budget for Head Start. Behrman, who chairs the statewide Vermont Head Start Association that covers seven state Head Start programs, said the program is working with legislators and stakeholders on those efforts.
While the funding cuts make it even more difficult for families to find a place in the Head Start program, Behrman said families still are being urged to apply. Enrollment is chosen on a need basis, primarily concerning income levels, Behrman said, but it also depends on a “constellation of issues.”