Putting Education Reform To The Test

Three Questions About Federal Budget Cuts For Head Start

March 1 is the deadline for Congress to strike a budget deal or a series of automatic spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over a decade takes effect.

The cuts — known as sequestration — would hit military spending, courts, national parks and K-12 and early childhood education programs. That includes Head Start, the federal early childhood education program.

We spoke with Louis Finney, director of the Hillsborough County Head Start program about what the cuts would mean for the 3,500 children enrolled in the program and its roughly 700 employees.

We also asked him about President Barack Obama’s proposal to expand early childhood education programs.

Q: Could you tell me what you’re expecting if Congress doesn’t reach a deal on these budget cuts and how it might affect Head Start programs in Hillsborough County?

A: The county has prepared for this within the past couple months for the worst-case scenario, and we don’t anticipate even if something were to happen on March 1st and no agreement was made. We don’t anticipate any interruption in services for children…we’ve pretty much been saving some of our dollars and doing a pretty good job in measuring whether we would run out of money or not. For us we don’t forsee any kind of immediate interruption in services for children at all….we had some time to prepare for it.

Q: Is there a point, though, at which they might be affected?

A: It’s hard for us to make that kind of determination because we haven’t gotten any appropriate guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services as far as how that money will hit if we go into sequestration.

We haven’t gotten any information from the federal level as far as how, or what percentage it would be. But as I get further information it does seem to be a little lower than what was originally expected.

So we don’t see forsee it being an issue with kids being off the roll or teachers being laid off or anything in the immediate future.

(Eventually, Finney said, the program might have to eliminate services for 300 children, or 10 percent of enrollment.)

Q: What have you been telling employees and parents about how this federal issue will affect them?

A: I’ve been telling them to continue to bring their kids to school and come to work Monday, and as I get information from our headquarters in Washington, D.C., but also from our county, I give them that information.

Our county has been very proactive…in looking at this as well. So they’re the ones who have been helping us prepare for this. We’re part of a larger governmental agency in the county that provides additional support for unmet needs that the federal government can’t pay for. Due to their support we’re not as concerned as some other programs may be in the rest of the state — but still concerned.

Q: One of the things the president did recently in his State of the Union address was advocate for expanded early childhood learning. What was your reaction to that?

A: We’re very optimistic. We maintain a very large waiting list. Particularly with Head Start, we serve the most at-risk children. Our children are homeless; foster parents; their deployed parents; they’re kids with disabilities.

We have a waiting list that averages about 1,000 kids, which is about one-fourth our population (enrolled). Any opportunity that we can expand our services to reach more families, we applaud that effort.

We also believe, and research says, that school readiness begins at two months old. So for us we start with working with the parents on school readiness in those young children…the investment in the long-term far outweighs what’s paid for in prisons.


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