WOONSOCKET – Federal sequester cuts will cost the state 370 slots in the Head Start early childhood education program, including 30 in Woonsocket.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) announced the effects of the sequester during a visit Tuesday to the Karen G. Bouchard Children’s Center in the Park Square neighborhood, one of three Head Start facilities in the city.
Reed said he had secured $1.5 million to fund Woonsocket’s Head Start programs this year, which represents a cut of 5.27 percent over last year, according to Mary Varr, director of the center. That means the program will only be able to accept 160 youngsters instead of last year’s 190.
“That’s 30 more children in Woonsocket that probably will not have an early education experience,” said Varr. “They’re going to go to kindergarten and not be ready.”
Despite the cuts, there is a waiting list of 120 children seeking admission to Head Start programs in the city.
Reed joined Varr and Douglas Brown, a member of the board of directors of the Bouchard center for nearly 40 years, in criticizing the sequester cuts. Reed said it had adversely affected many government-funded programs, even demonstrably effective ones like Head Start.
Reed blamed Republicans for the sequester, a far-reaching series of cuts that were automatically triggered by the government’s failure to reach a consensus on the federal budget.
Reed said Democrats in Congress are doing their best to persuade Republicans to relax the sequester for certain programs, particularly those that have a proven track record, but he wasn’t forecasting a breakthrough in the near future. He said some deeply ideological Republicans are driven to cut programs not because they are wasteful or inefficient, but simply because the government funds them.
“We have to do a lot to counter the effort to cut out these programs that are really investments in our future,” said Reed. “We have programs that work. We should invest in these programs.”
Reed said the state’s net cut for Head Start programs boiled down to a reduction of $1.3 million this year. The state had enough money to serve 2,450 children in Head Start programs last year, but with fewer resources, the figure will be reduced by about 370.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says 57,000 Head Start spots will be lost nationwide as a result of sequestration cuts. Varr said that if Congress doesn’t break the impasse over sequestration, local Head Start programs are on track to absorb another 2 percent reduction in federal funding in the future.
Brown said Head Start had weathered bad times in the past and come out of them in good shape, but he characterized the sequestration cuts as arbitrary and partisan.
“Now it’s different,” said Brown. “It’s mean-spirited and stupid, quite frankly, that Republicans nationally are saying ‘Here’s a successful liberal program, so we’ve got to cut it.’ ”
The lion’s share of funding for local Head Start programs comes from the federal government, administrators say. The state kicks in enough to cover slightly more than 60 of its available slots.
Varr says Head Start gives children from poor families access to early children education that they probably wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford in the private sector.
Reed and other advocates say the program isn’t a government giveaway, but an important peg in the nation’s strategy for producing students equipped to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy. Study after study, they say, has proven that students exposed to pre-school education perform better academically in the long run and end up better situated in the job market at the end of their educational experience.
Administrators at the Bouchard Center also say one of the lesser known benefits of Head Start is that parents sit on a “policy council” that gives them a hands-on role in their children’s education. For parents who are invariably overwhelmed by the challenges of paying rent and putting food on the table, the councils are often a gateway to broader civic involvement that helps build stronger communities.
“They can personally grow,” says Brown. “They can be involved with their kids, which gets them involved with community organizations or a nonprofit. That’s an important process in my mind that a lot of people overlook with Head Start.”
“Head Start has always dealt not with the child alone, but with the family,” the senator said. “It’s family-centric.”