Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday September 10th, 2013, 4:58pm

Federal Sequestration Takes A Toll On Illinois Head Start Programs

Some 1,600 fewer children in Illinois will be served in Head Start programs this school year due to the federal sequestration, according to the National Head Start Association.

The 5 percent, across-the-board cut to all Head Start programs in the country as part of the sequester, which took effect March 1, also means an estimated 300 Illinois early childhood education jobs will be lost, the Illinois Head Start Association estimates.

The decrease in federal funding for Illinois' 48 Head Start grantees, which served more than 52,000 students last year, also means the state's various Head Start centers will lose a combined 33,410 days of service.

"It's going to be a rough year," said Illinois Head Start Association's Executive Director Lauri Morrison-Frichtl.

The Head Start program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, looks to promote school readiness for children ages birth to five years old from low-income families. It also provides these families with health, nutrition and other social services.

Following the sequester, Head Start operators in Illinois have come up with a "hodgepodge" of ways to work within their new budgets without cutting kids, Morrison-Frichtl said.

"Programs really struggle because their waiting lists were huge, [and] they felt like they had a hard time justifying cutting kids, so they cut transportation, they shortened their hours of services, they shortened the school year," she added.

Cuts to transportation are specifically problematic in rural areas, Morrison-Frichtl said, because the lack of nearby public transportation makes it difficult for parents to get their children to and from centers that may be 10 to 15 miles from their home.

Overall, Morrison-Frichtl said cutting vital Head Start program services is a "risky business" because "it's hard to maintain that quality when you don't cut kids."

Head Start centers in Sangamon County are just a few that have been hit particularly hard in Illinois due to sequestration.

Two of the county's small-scale Head Start sites, one in Riverton and one in Springfield, shut down at the end of May. They were operated by the non-profit Springfield Urban League, Inc. 

The Springfield-based non-profit also had to scale back the total capacity of its collective six remaining Head Start centers in Sangamon County this school year by 34 children, according to the urban league’s Chief Operations Officer Lillie Jasper. 

It is unfortunate, Jasper said, "knowing that there are 34 children out there that we could have served."

Overall, the Springfield Urban League's Head Start centers can serve up to 681 students this year, which is down from 750 children prior to the sequester cuts. That's about two to three classrooms that have since been eliminated, Jasper said.

It's imperative for Congress to reach an agreement on how to meet spending caps in order to stave off a second year of sequestration, Jasper stressed.

“Any future cuts as it relates to the Head Start program will be very devastating,” she said. “We have so many children out there who are so in need of this service, and they don’t really have the opportunity otherwise.”

Additionally, Jasper said at least three staffers from the Springfield-area Head Start centers were expected to be let go due to the budget cuts. The centers, however, were able to maintain their current staffing levels for this year because three employees voluntarily resigned after securing employment elsewhere, including the public school system, Jasper explained.

At the national level, the whopping $405 million sequester cut to Head Start programs across the country has prevented about 57,000 children from accessing Head Start and Early Head Start this year, according to the Center for American Progress.

California experienced the largest Head Start reduction this year, serving 5,611 fewer children. Texas is grappling with the second-largest cut, serving 4,410 fewer children, followed by New York, 3,847; Pennsylvania, 2,812; and Ohio, 2,782.

According to the Department of Healthcare and Human Services, some 18,000 Head Start employees in all will lose their jobs or see their pay slashed due to sequestration. And nearly 1.3 million school days have been cut from Head Start centers nationwide thus far.

Morrison-Frichtl urged Congress to "stand up" for the children impacted by these deep cuts.

"We need Congress to really stand on principle and value around their support for the most vulnerable children in every community in Illinois," she said.

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