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How 57,000 children are paying the price for the GOP's hard line

Budget cuts mandated by sequestration have eliminated Head Start services for more than 57,000 children nationwide, according to new data released by the feder
Head Start and Sequestration - Suzy Khimm - 08/19/2013
Children play in the playground area at the Frederick, Maryland Head Start facility March 13, 2012.

Budget cuts mandated by sequestration have eliminated Head Start services for more than 57,000 children nationwide, according to new data released by the federal government.

The automatic, across-the-board budget cuts have also resulted in pay cuts or layoffs for at least 18,000 employees of Head Start, which provides education, nutrition, and health services for children aged 5 and under.

Overall, Head Start will provide 1.3 million fewer days of service nationwide because of the cuts, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the program. Last year, more than 956,000 children were enrolled in Head Start overall.

The data was collected from individual Head Start programs that submitted plans to the federal government explaining how they would handle the mandatory cuts. Local grant recipients who administer the program have the discretion to decide what parts of their program would bear the brunt of the cuts.

Federal officials have instructed local administrators "to make decisions to absorb the funding reductions without compromising the quality of your services to children and families," as well as avoid disrupting services to those currently enrolled in the program.

But limited funding has made significant Head Start cuts unavoidable in many parts of the country, as much of the money goes directly to serving families and maintaining staff. "Most of these programs are already running on a bare-bones budget anyway. There’s not a lot of extra money floating around that can be reallocated," Sally Aman, a spokesperson for the National Head Start Association, said in an interview last month.

The number of children cut tended to be highest in the most populous states: California eliminated Head Start services for 5,611 children; Texas cut 4,410, and New York cut 3,847. But there were also significant reductions in Pennsylvania (2,812), Tennessee (2,442), Ohio (2,782), and Michigan (2,204), according to the new federal data.

While the research has been mixed, Head Start has been proven to produce "modest benefits including some long-term gains for children," W. Steven Barnett, director of Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research, wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year. Working parents have also benefitted from the free care for their children.

Local Head Start programs that managed to avoid cutting slots for children have been forced to make other kinds of reductions that could affect families' ability to participate. In central North Carolina, sequestration forced the closure of one Head Start center in Cumberland County, consolidating it with another facility, according to Cynthia Wilson, director of a non-profit that runs the program locally. "The children in that community either have to be bused or the parents have to drive 30 minutes," said Wilson.

For some parents, that may not be a feasible option, particularly in more rural areas that have limited public transportation. Parents "have to find other ways to take care of their children," said Carl Rosenkranz, the director of Ozarks Area Community Action Corporation, which runs Head Start programs in rural Missouri.

And in certain cases, these families might not be able to afford an alternative: As Bloomberg reports, the elimination of a Head Start has already forced some parents to quit their jobs to take care of their young children.