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If you think the federal budget stalemate means things are not changing in your community you are sadly mistaken.

The standoff has slammed Head Start’s doors, and eliminated opportunities to prepare for school, in the faces of 750 potential preschoolers around Washington state.

How? Last March, the budget impasse triggered across-the-board cuts in federal spending, an ominous but vague-sounding step that’s having devastating effects on local families. Head Start lost 5 percent of its overall funding and that meant 750 kids couldn’t enroll in Head Start in Washington this year.

Since March the budget cuts have been fraying nearly every aspect of the nation’s largest preschool program. Around the state, Head Start directors have been forced to turn away students, close programs, lay off staff, shorten school years by more than 35,000 total days, and even cut back on crayons and construction paper.

This is not about children missing story time. Thanks to the budget failure more of Washington’s highest-risk children will miss critical opportunities to develop the skills they will need in kindergarten.

The end result is that more kids will show up unprepared for their first day of school. A mountain of evidence shows early learning programs, including Head Start, develop early literacy, cognitive, social-emotional and other skills that give at-risk students a better start and chance in school. Thanks to the failure of Congress and the White House, more kids will miss this chance and begin falling through the cracks of our education system.

If policymakers think they are saving money with these budget cuts they are also sadly mistaken. Denying families access to Head Start now will cost the federal government a lot more in the future. When kids are unprepared for kindergarten, public schools have to spend more on special education and remedial services, and the federal government winds up paying a lot of this tab. Studies show high-quality preschool programs, such as Head Start, can cut the number of children in special education by as much as 48 percent.[i]

These budget cuts are eroding Head Start just as members from both political parties, including Washington’s Sen. Patty Murray, are making one of the boldest moves in decades to expand preschool around the country.

But, there is an even bigger risk. If Congress doesn’t restore Head Start funding the lower level of enrollment and services could become permanent, a barely noticed concession in a sweeping budget deal, keeping thousands of Washington children out of one of the federal government’s longest running early education programs.

Policymakers should restore Head Start funding now. We need to remind legislators that Head Start funding is not a bargaining chip in some yet-to-be-determined budget deal. It is a critical opportunity for low-income students to prepare for school and life.

Call your representative and senators. Tweet your 140-character support, or short story about why Head Start matters, under the hashtag #RestoreHeadStart.

Let’s bring Head Start and early opportunity back.


[i] [i] [i] Belfield, Clive R 2006a. Does It Pay to Invest in Preschool for All? Analyzing Return-on-Investment in Three States. New Brunswick, NJ: National Inst. for Early Education Research.

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