On Capitol Hill, Head Start Advocates Rally Against Spending Cuts
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By Shujie Leng
BU News Service
WASHINGTON— As the partial shutdown of the federal government entered its second day, directors of Head Start programs around the country – accompanied by hundreds of children – rallied in protest at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, with U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., and several other Democratic legislators in attendance.
“Our children should not be political pawns in this political game that’s going on in Washington,” McGovern declared. “And the idea that you can balance a budget by disadvantaging our children is unconscionable.”
The immediate target of the protest was the so-called sequester – automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in last March to reduce the federal deficit, and which have already strained the Head Start program. Nationwide, about 60,000 preschoolers have been cut from the Head Start program – which serves about 1 million young children from low-income families – since the sequester began.
However, 23 local Head Start programs around the country also have been affected by the government shutdown, according to Yamina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association. Because the federal grants for some local programs ran out at the beginning of the 2014 fiscal year, another 19,000 children nationwide are at least temporarily cut off from Head Start, she said.
The situation is a little brighter in Massachusetts, according to Tom Weber, commissioner of the state Department of Early Education and Care.
None of Head Start programs in Worcester County are among those immediately affected, Weber said. The one Head Start program in the state that was affected is located in Greenfield, in Franklin County. It was operating on a grant that was due to come in at the beginning of the 2014 fiscal year on Oct. 1, but the state has stepped in to keep that program going for two more weeks, Weber added.
Statewide, sequestration has removed about 2,000 children from 29 Head Start programs since March, said Pam Kuechler, executive director of Massachusetts Head Start Association, who attended Wednesday’s rally. Federal grants for these programs have been cut by $6 million due to sequestration, she added.
The Worcester Public School District has one of the four Head Start programs in the greater Worcester area. Due to sequestration, the program has lost 140 children, with an accompanying budget cut of $308,000. The cut forced the program to close one of its five teaching sites in the city, reducing the number of classrooms from 38 to 34, according to Laurie Kuczka, acting director of the program.
“At this moment, the program won’t be shut down… We will continue to offer our services as we would always do,” said Kuczka. The Worcester program’s federal grant was renewed this past May 1.
However, “if the shutdown goes on for a few weeks or months, it’s worrisome,” said Jill Dagilis, executive director of the Worcester Community Action Council, whose Head Start program had its grant renewed last month. Her program already had suffered $154,000 in cuts due to sequestration, with several classrooms closed and staff laid off.
Wednesday’s rally at the Capitol, organized by National Head Start Association, received support from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, along with McGovern and three other Democratic House members. No Republican legislators were in attendance.
“That was a big disappointment, because you know many of them really like Head Start… They have a good relationship with Head Start programs,” Vinci said of the dearth of Republicans.
After the rally, McGovern derided House Republicans’ recent efforts to restore government funding on a piecemeal basis as “cherry picking popular items.” Charged McGovern, “[The]” part of the government they don’t want to fund is the part that helps the most vulnerable.”
During the rally, Murray – who received an award from the National Head Start Association – noted that she was once a preschool teacher. Taking aim at congressional Republicans, she gibed, “I learnt a few skills back then teaching preschool that certainly I’m using today.”