Back to School? Not for Every Child

Early Childhood
Education

First-Focus-Blog-166620370Yesterday, the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the National Head Start Association (NHSA) co-sponsored an event that highlighted the devastating effect sequestration – the automatic spending cuts currently being applied to all government spending – is having on Head Start. As the CAP paper Who’s Not Going Back to School? and NHSA’s state fact sheets on sequestration reveal, the negative effects are far-reaching and potentially devastating for many children.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 57,265 fewer children, including about 6,000 infants and toddlers in Early Head Start, will be able to participate in Head Start as a result of sequestration. Reducing the number of children who can attend is only one way that Head Start centers are making up for funding cuts, and about 60 percent of Head Start providers are making up for reduced funding this way. About 28 percent of providers shortened the school year, meaning roughly 87,000 children will be getting on average 15 fewer days of Head Start classes, while other providers cut the length of the school day. Additionally, many providers are cutting transportation, making it harder for families who did not lose access to Head Start to get their children there.

Head Start was already underfunded and serving only about half of the children who are eligible before sequestration. As our paper Pre-K for Every Child: A Matter of Fairness points out, access to publicly funded preschool before sequestration was already limited for low-income and middle-class families. Combined with the high cost of high-quality private preschool, this means that children in low- and middle-income families are enrolled in preschool at lower rates than children in high-income families. As a result, many children in low- and middle-income families are simply left out of preschool, meaning they start kindergarten already behind their wealthier peers. Sequestration means that even more children are being left out, and if it is allowed to continue Head Start providers will face ever deeper cuts in 2014 and even fewer children will be able to access high-quality preschool.

The positive impact of preschool in general and Head Start in particular is well documented: a longitudinal study has found higher educational attainment, lower teen pregnancy and grade repetition, and better health and earnings later in life for graduates of Head Start; a comprehensive meta-analysis of 123 studies on early childhood intervention finds large positive effects on cognitive outcomes, children’s social skills, and school progress; and a study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) on the Abbott Preschool Program in New Jersey finds children made significant, measurable gains as a result of attending an Abbott Preschool, including decreased grade retention and special education referrals, boosts in vocabulary and math skills in 2nd grade, and improved scores on state-administered tests compared to children that did not attend. And there are many other studies that find positive results from preschool. Yet children are still being left out, and, as the event yesterday highlighted, sequestration is making that worse.

We should be investing in early education initiatives instead of further limiting access through harmful policies like sequestration. Over 57,000 fewer children who can go “back to school” at Head Start, added to the millions of children already left out of early learning opportunities, is a missed opportunity for these children and for the country. Congress should ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend high-quality preschool by this time next year. The president’s plan to expand federal investments in preschool, modeled loosely on the highly successful Children’s Health Insurance Program, would create a state-federal partnership that encourages and allows states to expand high-quality pre-K for children in low-income families. The plan also includes provisions to ensure that children from birth through age 3 have access to high quality early learning opportunities, and would go a long way toward ensuring that every child can go to preschool to be prepared and ready to learn on the first day of kindergarten. We shouldn’t – and indeed the country can’t – wait another school year to expand access to high quality preschool for every child.