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Sequester Slams Head Start Programs


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to spend some time now talking about early childhood education. President Obama called it a priority in this year's State of the Union address, so we want to talk about the state of early childhood education across the country. We'll hear more about that a bit later. But first we want to talk about changes already happening to one important early child development program. We've talked before about those across-the-board budget cuts which were crafted to reduce the federal deficit. They're known as the sequester.

It turns out that the Head Start program is feeling the pain now in many places. That program, you may remember, is intended to help children from low income families get the most out of school. Here's a clip of a mother, Ann Stover(ph), from East Dallas, Texas, whose son Rhett(ph) lost his place in Head Start last month along with hundreds of other children, because his program was closed down early because of budget cuts.

ANN STOVER: Head Start had a massive positive impact on him. He was able to vastly improve his vocabulary, his reading and writing skills, his social skills with other children. And the very first day of public school, the first observation his new teachers had was how articulate he was, how well-mannered he was, and what a grasp of language he had. And I know that that is a direct result of being at Head Start.

MARTIN: The White House estimates that because of these budget cuts known as the sequester, 70,000 children who would have been served by Head Start will not have access to the program by the end of the year. And as you just heard, that means that some programs have already shut down.

We wanted to talk more about this, so joining us now is NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. Also with us, teacher Tabatha McMullen, who works at a Head Start in Salina, Kansas. Welcome to you both. Thank you. Thank you both so much for joining us.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Good to be here, Michel.


MARTIN: Claudio, in your case, welcome back. Let me start with you. Why is Head Start and being affected this way so early? I think a lot of people think of education funding as being advanced at the beginning of the school year, and it lasts through the school year - at least throughout the year. So why is this happening now?

SANCHEZ: You're right though. Education - public education that gets federal money, Michel, gets a lot of forward funded money. In other words, the money is put out there way before it kicks in. And let's say the fall, the money is already there for those schools opening up in the fall. Head Start is not like that. Head Start, for example, for many school systems, their fiscal year begins or began in December.

So what many of them have had to do is go back and say, well, now we're not going to count with this amount of money, meaning over five percent - a five percent budget cut. And they're realizing they're not going to have enough money to end the year. So they're having to go back and say, what can we cut, not just enrollment but staff, programs, hours. And that's the only way they're going to make it, because that's the only amount of money they have.

MARTIN: Tabatha, what happened in your area?

MCMULLEN: Well, our program - we are fortunate to be close to the end of our fiscal year, and we didn't have to close any classrooms down. But we did make some big cuts for the next year to our full-day, full year classrooms. We have three of those, which is basically the parents have to be either in school or working full-time - not completely full-time but at least 20 hours a week - to qualify for childcare. And those classrooms have been cut and moved to regular nine-month classrooms.

But other people in our area, like in Wichita, have been cut completely. Shut down classrooms. People said don't come to work the next day, you don't get paid. Your kids can't come to school.

MARTIN: What happens when you shared or when the administrators shared these changes with the families?

MCMULLEN: Oh, gosh. I was at the meeting when the shared this with the families. And I kind of heard slowly. We tried to prepare them for that. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of why is this happening to us. We are working. We are gainfully employed, now we don't have care for our children. What are we going to do? It was a lot of unsureness about the future.

MARTIN: And you were telling us earlier that some parents have actually had to quit school, or quit their jobs. Why is that?

MCMULLEN: Well, what we have done is we have some childcare partners in the community that we could place them with. They don't get the exact same services in those, but we do have quality childcare here in Salina. But these parents who have had to change their plans, have had to do that because they didn't qualify anymore for full-year care because we had to change the requirements to serve as many families as we could. And so some of them have had to completely alter their life, to make sure that they have at least a few hours of care a day for their child.

MARTIN: Claudio, we were - it's been reported that at least two programs in Indiana resorted to a lottery to determine which 36 preschool students would be dropped immediately. And there were reports from the local papers about people just weeping when this information was announced.

Do you happen to know if that's unique or is that happening in other places?

SANCHEZ: Well, the National Head Start Association, which is the advocacy group for grantees and for families and programs, says it doesn't know exactly how many jobs, how many kids have been cut. But these are becoming more and more widespread. I don't know how many lotteries and there have been. But I do know that Coleman, Texas, for example, shut down entirely. And there are programs - Owensboro, Kentucky, for example, last Friday fired over 40 staff.

I mean this is happening everywhere. And depending on how resourceful some of these centers are, some are finding ways to cut so that, you know, they don't have to cut kids. But most centers are laying off staff. That's just one of the things that they've had to do.

MARTIN: Tabatha, can you tell us a bit more about what experience the kids have at Head Start. And you were saying it's not just daycare. I mean there some people who say, well, you know, this is daycare. Tell us a little bit more about the kinds of experiences the kids have in Head Start, and why you think this matters.

MCMULLEN: Well, the children are here when I get here every day. And we eat meals together and we talk about our home family and our school family, what we saw on the way to school. That's a place where we teach math and language and problem solve and practice self-help skills. They're really a part of our school family. That's what you become when you come to Head Start. We work so closely with their home family that it's like we're all really related.

We take care of our classroom together. We work on building positive relationships. We don't just play outside at recess, we have an outdoor classroom. We take our kids on a field trip every month and build partnerships in the community. Every minute the children with us is a learning time. And we focus on school readiness goals that if they didn't have they wouldn't be ready for kindergarten. This sequester has sort of put a hole in the life of those children and the families, because we provide classes for the families as well on relationships, healthy cooking, parenting, financial responsibility, English language learning.

And you know, the kids every day - people who are my friends on Facebook always just die when they hear the things my kids say. One student said to me: You know, Ms. Tabatha, what I like the most about you? And I said, what was that? And he said, Your heart. And that's what Head Start gives to the children and the families. They give their heart. They give their whole life.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, Tabatha, you're too modest to mention this. But I understand that your salary was also cut.

MCMULLEN: Yes, my salary was also cut.

MARTIN: By how much?

MCMULLEN: Thirteen thousand dollars a year.

MARTIN: And that's what, a third?

MCMULLEN: That's a third of what I made.

MARTIN: That's hard.


MARTIN: Claudio, before we let you go, what you are hearing from around the country about this? I mean how significant do you think that this is? And what are advocates saying?

SANCHEZ: Tabatha, this is - and I was about to refer to Tabatha's situation. I mean this is typical. And it is so serious. It just - it's mind-boggling that, you know, the federal government has restored some funding for the airlines. Let's say for air travelers not to be inconvenienced because of the sequester. And yet when it comes to these children, to these families, to these workers, it's amazing that they're essentially, you know, I mean they're not going to recover. They're not going to recover these funds.

MARTIN: Why do you say - but why do you say that - Claudio, just before we let you go, we have a minute left. Tell me again what the experts say about why they feel this kind of early childhood exposure is important.

SANCHEZ: Well, it's important because the sign says that the earlier you get to these kids, the better off they're going to be academically down the road. And there's been no dispute about that. One big question that I'm also hearing is whether the president's 2014 budget is going to make up for this. According to what we seen, 1.9 percent is going to be restored. But that's still going to leave a huge hole in the Head Start budget as we know it.

MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio, as he does from time to time to keep us up-to-date on important issues in education. Tabatha McMullen is a Head Start teacher. She joined us from Salina, Kansas.

Tabatha, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for your hard work.

MCMULLEN: Yes, thank you.

MARTIN: Claudio, thank you.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.