For 770 preschool-aged children in eastern Alabama, school is out indefinitely. Thanks to the government shutdown which began Tuesday morning, Cheaha Regional Head Start (CRHS) has had to close all 16 of its locations, furlough its 240 employees without pay, and tell parents to keep all of the program's students at home.
"There's nothing that we can do, and there's no way to head it off," said CRHS director Dora Jones. "It all depends on them passing this budget."
Head Start programs like Jones' provide an alternative to private preschool for children from low-income families. Although such programs operate locally, they run on federal grants which are awarded annually. The Cheaha region's most recent annual grant was awarded on September 30, 2012, and expired on Monday. The next day, the federal Department of Health and Human Service's Administration for Children and Families closed its doors as a result of the government shutdown; as a result, there is no one around to send CRHS more grant money.
Including CRHS, 23 programs in 11 states ran out of federal grant money on Sept. 30, according to the National Head Start Association. Those 23 programs service about 19,000 children in total, but not all of those students were sent home on Tuesday. Some Head Start programs have alternative sources of revenue or money left over, while others are run by larger organizations with rainy day cash to spare. One Head Start program in western Massachusetts was slated to be shut down, but a state bailout provided it with the money to stay open for another two weeks.
"I don't know how long some of these organizations would be able to hold out," said Sharon Parrott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The longer the shutdown drags on, the more Head Start programs could be forced to close their doors—and if it wears on for over a month, yet more programs will see their federal grants expire on Oct. 30.
Granted, Head Start's budget woes didn't begin with the shutdown. When across-the-board sequestration cuts went into effect in March, that spliced $405 million out of Head Start funding. As a result, 57,000 children were dropped from the program nationwide. Even where cash-strapped Head Start programs have managed to avoid dropping students, they have often been forced to cut corners in other ways.
"Some programs shortened their school year and some shortened their school day" because of the sequester, said Parrott.
Nor was Head Start the only educational program to be affected by both sequestration and shutdown. "Impact aid," which is distributed to schools on federal properties such as military bases, could also be affected if the shutdown wears on for too long.
"It's hard to make a generalized statement, because it'll impact states and districts differently," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, regarding the shutdown. "What we do know is, the longer it goes on, the more schools and students will be impacted."
UPDATE: As of Wednesday, October 2, roughly 50 Head Start sites have closed due to the shutdown, affecting about 3,200 children, a Health and Human Services spokesperson told MSNBC.com.