“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men [and women].”–Frederick Douglass
Despite the fact that we acknowledge the importance of early childhood education, poor
children seem to be one of the first casualties of budget cuts. A few weeks ago I saw a news story that broke my heart. A Head Start program was having a lottery to see which children would be able to remain and which children would be sent home, no longer able to attend. Head Start is a federal pre-school program that serves children from low-income families, “enhancing their cognitive, social and emotional development.” Initiated by Pres. Lyndon Johnson as part of his “War on Poverty” in 1965, it has served more than 30 million children.
The budget cuts (also known as the Sequester) affecting Head Start were set in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011, requiring a five percent reduction in the budget in 2013. In addition to holding lotteries for students, Head Start programs across the country have addressed their reduced funding by laying off teachers, curtailing the length of the school year, and completely eliminating some centers.
Education is one of the things that I am extremely passionate about. Being a Head Start alumna, I began to think about Head Start and what it meant to me. Compulsory education for children in my state, Mississippi, began at age six. But because of Head Start, I had the opportunity to go to school at age five.
I can’t remember everything about that school year, but Head Start was important because it is where I learned to love school. I eagerly awaited the white passenger van that picked me up every morning. One morning I fell and cut my hand on a piece of broken glass before the bus came, and my only concern was whether I’d be able to attend school that day.
I remember reading, math, art, recess, and singing songs like “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” I remember nap time, after which we had a snack of graham crackers and Hawaiian Punch. (I never went to sleep because I hated naps.) I learned how to get along with other children, which was really important for me because I spent a lot of time alone. I made friendships in Head Start that lasted through high school.
Perhaps my most vivid memory is going to the dentist. We all went–the whole class. I think it was my first time and probably some of the other kids’ first times too. I, unfortunately, had a mouth full of cavities. My love of candy had betrayed me, but it was a lesson learned: To avoid the dentist’s drill, I had to give up the candy and take better care of my teeth.
While there are some studies that question the effectiveness of Head Start, I have no doubt that it was beneficial to me. My classmates and I were ready for first grade the next year. It is unfortunate that the Sequester is hurting some of our most vulnerable citizens. All children deserve the opportunity to learn.
Update: The Impact of the Government Shutdown
Because Congress failed to reach an agreement on funding the federal government by September 30, 2013, the United States is currently in the midst of a government shutdown. Almost immediately, we began to see its disproportionate impact on women and children. The Head Start Program had already been forced to cut $405 million from its budget (5 percent), which resulted in 57,000 pre-school aged children being removed.
By the end of the first week of the shutdown, Head Start programs in six states (Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi) were closed, which affected more than 7,000 children. Fortunately, a $10 million donation to the National Head Start Association from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation has provided emergency funding through the end of the October. If the shutdown persists, however, Head Start closures will impact an additional 86,000 low-income children.