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Hyping the sequester: Head Start

Education

“To get a sense of just how foolish and shortsighted the $85 billion across-the-board sequester cuts are, you don’t have to look any further than Head Start.”

Greg Kaufmann writes “This Week in Poverty” for The Nation, a leading news and political voice on the left. Last Friday, in “Denying a Head Start in Washington State,” he complained that federal budget sequester cuts ravish Head Start, but he misused the numbers and hyped the research. 

Kaufmann showered praise on the “high quality” program through the words of Joel Ryan, the Head Start director in Washington State: “The research shows that kids who go through Head Start are more likely to be ready for kindergarten, less likely to need special education services, and more likely to graduate from high school.” But for the “research,” Kaufman linked to a list of articles and databases—no real numbers.  Perhaps that’s because the much-debated research is too fuzzy to justify such a strong claim. 

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W. Steven Barnett, director of the  National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, took on claims from both sides in the Washington Post. He wrote that research seems to indicate the program may have some positive cognitive effects—but that doesn't necessarily translate to school progress. With many public schools compensating for those who haven’t gotten a “head start,” gains from the pre-K program often disappear. No one knows whether Head Start saves money over a student’s academic career.

Barnett concluded the program still has potential. But for many, “potential” after 47 years is unacceptable. President Barack Obama has tried to make improvements recently, forcing the 125 lowest performing Head Start providers to compete to keep their funding. Twenty-five lost their funding and will be replaced. 

Kaufmann also lambasts the sequester budget cuts as “foolish and shortsighted.” But WORLD Washington correspondent J.C. Derrick, looking at recent budgets, showed the sequester isn’t much of a cut at all. The same goes for Head Start. In short, the program’s budget under the sequester merely leaves Head Start where it was two years ago: The sequester’s 5.27 percent budget cut balances out the budget increase of 5.1 percent in 2012. The final 2013 budget will be $13 million more than the 2011 budget—and still $695 million higher than the 2008 budget. Here are the Head Start budget and enrollment tables.

Some providers have reduced services. Kaufmann reported the struggles of a father in Snohomish County, Washington, whose daughter lost her spot for the fall. But as providers look to minimize losses, many have begun to question whether the government’s oft-repeated claim of 70,000 displaced children is realistic.

“PolitiFact” fact-checked the claim Sunday, reporting the estimate appears more like a worst-case scenario. Around Florida, Head Start providers are finding creative ways to cut costs without cutting many students. Hillsborough County’s largest provider, the Hillsborough County School System, plans to cut only 40 students this fall through cutting field trips and new playground construction in the Tampa Bay area.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the “70,000” estimate surfaces on the money trail. The numbers don’t add up. Head Start had its highest enrollment ever in 2011, with a budget almost identical to its post-sequester one. Head Start enrollment actually declined 8,000 in 2012 while its budget rose by $400 million. Head Start doesn’t release its 2013 enrollment until the end of the fiscal year, but with numbers like this, it’s hard to believe a 5.27 percent budget cut will cause more than a 7 percent enrollment decline. 

The timing of the cuts, however, is a completely different issue, one that Kaufmann documents closely. Many of the program’s more than 950,000 students saw hours cut in the middle of the spring semester, with many ending the school year several days early. Parents scrambled for childcare, and some already impoverished parents had to cut back working hours. Kaufmann helpfully documents the emotional wringer that some parents were put through as politicians bickered, but here’s the bottom line: Even with the cuts—as is the case with the federal budget generally—Head Start’s budget is still much higher than its budget in 2008.

Andrew Branch
Andrew Branch

Andrew is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C. He was homeschooled for 12 years and recently graduated from N.C. State University. He writes about sports and poverty for WORLD. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewABranch.

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