Our View: Head Start cuts have long-term consequences

Of all the effects of the across-the-board federal budget cuts, the most unfortunate has to be on the Head Start program.

It's one thing for the sequester to force a federal employee to take an unpaid day off each month, or to inconvenience private citizens who find a federal office closed, but it's quite another to deny our neediest children the benefits of a quality preschool program.

Ask any educator, and they'll tell you that children from low-income families tend to be the least prepared for school. To qualify for Head Start, a family of four must have an annual income of $23,550 a year or less. A family subsisting on $450 a week has little, if anything, left after paying for food, clothing and shelter.

Repeated studies demonstrate that investment in preschool education pays off in the long run:

• A 2011 study by the National Institutes of Health found that every dollar spent on preschool education generates $4 to $11 of economic benefits over a child's lifetime.


• A 2009 Harvard University study said Head Start participants are about 8.5 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 6 percent more likely to have attempted at least one year of college.

• A 2006 Georgetown University study found the mortality rate for children who attended Head Start was 33 percent to 50 percent lower than the rates for comparable children not enrolled in Head Start.

In response to the budget cuts, Child Care Resource and Referral, the local agency that oversees the Head Start program for Olmsted and Freeborn counties, has laid off three workers and left one position unfilled. The sequester — automatic cuts enacted when Congress couldn't agree on budget — means that most federal programs lost 5.27 percent of their funding. For the local Head Start program, that translates into $200,000.

If funding isn't restored (and there's little optimism that it will), the agency will have to cut enrollment in Head Start and Early Head Start from 536 to 513 children this fall, said Sandy Simar, the Head Start director at Child Care Resource and Referral. Eighty-seven children are on the waiting list for the fall, and Simar expects that number could double.

"It's really disturbing because of the benefits are huge for both families and the children attending Head Start before they start school," Simar said.

That's because Head Start is more than just a preschool program. Among its services are home visits, immunizations, health screenings, dental screenings and meals for children. It also offers an array of services for adults such as parenting classes, nutrition classes, housing assistance and help toward earning a GED or getting a driver's license.

Simar is hopeful that some of lost federal funding could be offset by a $40 million early childhood scholarship program passed this spring by the Minnesota Legislature. While federal dollars provide a vast majority of Head Start finances, it also receives state and United Way funding.

The timing of the funding cuts is especially unfortunate because Child Care Resource & Referral and the Boys & Girls Club of Rochester are putting the finishing a new center that greatly increases its Head Start space.


Make no mistake: The shortsighted cuts caused by the gridlock in Washington will have long-term consequences, and our neediest kids will pay the biggest price.

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