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(A version of this story originally appeared in Birth to Thrive Online.)

Last year Congress failed to agree on how to cut the federal budget deficit and that means 1,400 children could lose their spots in Head Start programs around Washington state this January, a new report says.

The reasons for the cutbacks are well known in the other Washington. A special congressional panel couldn’t agree on $1.2 trillion in federal spending reductions, so Congress and the Obama administration agreed to a budget deal that will trigger across-the-board cuts in federal discretionary spending in January.

These cuts could wreak havoc in the lives of struggling families. In Washington state Head Start programs the cuts will translate into the loss of 1,400 out of 17,700 spots and the closure of more than 50 classrooms, according to an analysis by the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP. Nationally, 100,000 students would lose their seats in Head Start classrooms, and 20,000 staff would lose their jobs, according to First Five Years Fund.

These cuts will resonate far outside those classrooms, not only derailing students’ preparation for school but disrupting the parenting support Head Start provides.

“If she was no longer able to come to her Head Start classroom…she would not be kindergarten-ready,” Nicole Matthews, who sends her daughter to a Head Start program in Kent, Wa., said last week during an event to highlight the potential cuts.

The budget cuts including those to Head Start are not guaranteed. After the elections, Congress and whoever wins the White House could push for a new deal that overrides the budget plan. And the outcome of the presidential election certainly would affect the parameters of any new budget negotiations.

But given the gridlock that has stalled congressional action lately, the cuts could hit this winter. “I am not that hopeful necessarily that we will get out from under the trigger,” said Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Head Start & ECEAP Association.

One mother urged policymakers to remember that cutting Head Start now would simply cost the federal government more later. The number of children who would be held back a grade or struggle in school likely would increase, she warned. “In the long run, we are going to be spending so much more money,” said Nicole Gonzales, whose son is enrolled at a Head Start program in Walla Walla, Wa.

If you want to support Head Start check out http://www.supportheadstart.org.

Paul Nyhan writes Thrive by Five Washington’s Birth to Thrive Online blog.  He worked with the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP on its media event.


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