Cuts Could Affect Head Start

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Low-income children and families will keep their Head Start placements despite a budget shortfall caused by automatic federal spending cuts.  Across the state program directors are looking for ways to reduce expenses that don’t involve cutting  kids from the program.  But it’s likely only a temporary fix. As StateImpact Indiana’s Elle (pronounced “Ellie”) Moxley reports, as many as 1,000 Head Start slots could disappear before next school year.


Geminus Head Start Director Karen Carradine would like to see more programs like the full-day one at Evans Elementary in Lake Station.  It’s late afternoon, and the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds chatter excitedly as they wait for parents to pick them up.

Carradine says the high cost of childcare keeps many low-income parents out of the workforce. That’s why she’d like to add more full-day Head Start classrooms in Lake and Porter counties. But Geminus is struggling now to keep the current program intact while facing a 5-percent budget cut. “Basically we’re talking about potentially 100 families,” she says.

Call it Carridine’s three-quarters of a million dollar question. Geminus serves about 1,500 kids through Head Start and Early Head Start — about 40 percent of those who are eligible.

We’re not running out of families.” That’s Indiana Head Start Association Executive Director Cheryl Miller. “It’s one thing to talk about losing spots, but we know a lot of programs are going to try to avoid that. They’re going to try to avoid lowering their enrollment.”

Miller says the sequestration cuts are coming at a time when many programs have already trimmed their budgets. That means there isn’t much left to cut without sacrificing quality. Meanwhile the need for services is growing. Michael Wells is an early education researcher formerly with the University of Indianapolis. He says high quality preschool is out of reach for many middle-income families, let alone those below the poverty level that quality for Head Start.

But what we’re doing is saying, ‘Hey parents, at a time in your life when you’re the youngest — and that’s typically correlated with making the least amount of money you’re every going to make in your life — that’s when you need to pay $8,000, $10,000, $12,000 a year to send one child to preschool.’ “

 Income-eligible Head Start families also qualify for other federally funded programs like health clinics, food assistance and childcare vouchers. But in Northwest Indiana Carradine says it’s her office that often points parents toward those services.

“So a family that’s already connected through Head Start is more likely to be closer to the front of the line for those services. The families that we can’t serve? That line’s just gotten longer.”

Then there’s the impact of automatic spending cuts on other federal programs. Nearby Gary Community Schools gets grant money from the federal government to help disadvantaged students and uses some of those Title I dollars to send 4-year-olds to preschool. Carradine says cuts to that program could put more students on the waiting list for Head Start.

“If that funding — which it will be through sequestration — how many of those kids now, how many of them are income-eligible for Head Start, but they’re families we didn’t necessarily have to worry about.”

But Carridine is worried now. She says her first move will be to cut administrative costs, and she’ll eliminate support positions before teachers and aides. There’s also talk of doing away with some classroom teaching and focusing on home-based early education.  This would cost loss, but parents would lose access to childcare. While Carridine vows to preserve programming at all costs, she says it’s likely when some 5-year-olds age out of Head Start and head to kindergarten their slots will go unfilled.

“That’s huge as far as I’m concerned. Each family is its own pebble in the lake. Each family is its own ripple effect in the community.”

Yet in a way Geminus is lucky. Carradine says because the organization just started its fiscal year in February, there’s still time to rework the budget. But for Head Start programs whose grants expire this summer, the money has already been spent.

For StateImpact Indiana, I’m Elle Moxley.

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