You may have seen them today: empty chairs sitting outside local Head Start centers. Each chair represents a child whose place at that center has been cut -- a child whose future may now be in jeopardy.
For many young children in this country, the road to a better life begins when they enter a high-quality early-learning program like Head Start. When they do, we all benefit because they are better prepared to go to school, start a career, and achieve success. But recent events have placed new obstacles on that road.
In the debate over the arbitrary spending cuts called sequestration, many people warned of the long-term consequences to our children and their futures. Despite those warnings, sequestration went into effect, causing the biggest funding cut in Head Start's history.
Head Start programs were encouraged to minimize disruptions to the children by cutting open slots after children graduated rather than removing children who were already enrolled. However, there was no legal room to shift funding to soften the blow -- sequestration reduced every Head Start grant by the same percent. Some programs were forced to use a lottery to determine which children could continue to come to class and which would lose their seat.
For months, we have seen local stories of families and communities struggling to cope as Head Start programs have been forced to turn away children because their budgets were stretched to the breaking point. In small towns and big cities, the stories have been much the same.
And now we have added up all those cuts from across the country to better understand the national impact. Today the Office of Head Start is reporting that approximately 57,000 children were cut from Head Start programs this year because of sequestration.
Those 57,000 include more than 51,000 fewer children in Head Start (ages 3-5) and nearly 6,000 fewer children, families and pregnant women in Early Head Start (ages 0-3) in the current program year due to sequestration.
But the damage goes further. Even the children who survived the cuts and can stay in Head Start are facing significantly reduced services.In addition to turning away those 57,000 children, Head Start programs will be forced to:
- Cut 1.3 million days of service
- Provide 18,000 fewer hours of service through shortened school days
- Terminate or reduce salaries of 18,000 employees
These cuts have been implemented by programs in order to keep as many children as possible in Head Start with the remaining funds, while maintaining quality and safety.
The decision to take away funding for high quality early learning for tens of thousands of young Americans is indefensible morally and economically. If we shortchange our children, we shortchange our nation. Strong early learning can translate into school success, which can lead to college and good jobs, and ultimately a robust economy. Research shows that a public dollar spent on high quality early childhood education can return $7 through increased productivity and savings on public assistance and criminal justice programs.
So there is no question that these cuts jeopardize our children's futures. America now ranks 28th globally in early childhood education enrollment and now risks falling even further behind in preparing our children for school. We can't win the race for the future by holding back our children at the starting line.
It's not too late. Those empty chairs don't have to stay empty; those 57,000 children can get back on the road to success. But they need our help.
Across the country, communities are coming together to support Head Start funding because they know that early childhood education is one of the best investments Americans can make. President Obama knows this, too, and has proposed significant new investments in early learning, through an initiative to make high quality preschool available to all four-year olds, create new Early Head Start-Child Care partnerships, and extend and expand voluntary home visiting services. Through national leadership and partnerships at the local level, we can protect and expand high-quality learning opportunities for our children.