AUGUSTA, Maine — Proposed cuts the Legislature will consider next week to funding for Head Start and day care voucher programs are prompting educators to sound the alarm that the cuts will affect not only the children and families involved, but Maine’s economy as a whole.
A supplemental budget bill passed Thursday by Republicans on the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee restores some funding that Gov. Paul LePage proposed to eliminate altogether, but experts say the reduced funding will have severe detrimental effects. Targeted for cuts are the Head Start program, child care subsidies for parents who are either working or continuing their education and funding for home visits for children in low-income families.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Friday that the cuts are part of LePage’s larger goal of making structural changes in state government that will save money in the present and for years to come.
“What we did was prioritize some things,” said Bennett. “We simply can’t be everything for everyone any longer. These structural changes will bring long-term savings.”
Republicans argued that Maine is among a minority of states that provide funding for Head Start on top of what comes from the federal government, though Head Start advocates say there are 16 other states like Maine that provide direct funding for the program and another 16 on top of that that allow Head Start programs to access public money from prekindergarten programs.
State government funding for Head Start, for which Maine is currently paying about $3.75 million per year, is proposed to be cut by $2 million, which Maine Children’s Alliance early childhood policy analyst Judy Reidt-Parker said will push between 200 and 250 children out of Head Start, jeopardizing their educational futures and forcing their families to find other child care. Republicans countered by pointing out that Head Start would continue to receive $440,000 in state General Fund money under the proposal, in addition to $1.3 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine and $32 million in federal funds. Head Start has existed in Maine since 1965 and has received state government funding since 1983.
According to Reidt-Parker, approximately 70 percent of children in Head Start — whose families qualify based on low-income requirements — come from parents who are either working or taking education courses. There are about 3,800 children from birth to age 5 in Head Start programs in Maine. That’s about 30 percent of the children whose families are financially eligible, she said.
“I have heard some legislators say that they were sure that Head Start programs could deal with this cut through administrative savings,” said Reidt-Parker. “Head Start programs have tweaked their programs over the past four years to be as tight and efficient as they possibly can. Something like this is going to be too big for them to absorb.”
Kathryn Colfer, chairperson of the Maine Head Start Directors Association, said the cut will inevitably lead to the total elimination of some Head Start programs.
“I know the Head Start programs will absolutely be closing some locations,” said Colfer. “It will reach from York County to Aroostook County. You can’t take these types of cuts and still keep the same levels of service.”
Colfer, who oversees the Educare Center in Waterville, which in 2010 became only the 12th school of its kind in the nation, said even that facility will suffer.
“There will be some classrooms that will no longer be in service,” she said.
Some see LePage’s initiatives in this area as being inconsistent with the governor’s emphasis on supporting education, which has included increasing funding for public schools by about $63 million in the current biennium and phasing in an education reform plan that includes the creation of charter schools and new laws regarding teacher evaluations and training, among others.
“The challenge is how people frame education,” said Reidt-Parker. “My frame of education begins possibly much earlier in life than the current administration’s. If you focus resources and energy into the birth-to-age-eight group, then those high school graduation outcomes will improve. The solution in my mind is investing in early childhood education and there’s a lot of research to back that up.”
Studies have shown that investments in early childhood pay bigger dividends than spending later in children’s educations.
Bennett said the cuts backed by LePage and Republicans are designed to stabilize the state budget so that the Legislature isn’t faced with huge revenue gaps year after year, which has been commonplace in recent cycles.
“The governor has a commitment to public education but it’s important to understand that these programs receive a steady flow of money,” she said. “What our governor has maintained all along is that we need to put our focus on the students. You have to prioritize when you only have so much money.”
The budget proposal also seeks to cut child care subsidies in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the bulk of which are funded out of the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which is Maine’s share of a class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies. The Republican proposal cuts more than $1.9 million, which Reidt-Parker said will affect some 1,700 families — 100 percent of whom have parents who are either working or continuing their educations.
“These are tools that this state can use to help people who are working and are striving to become even more self-sufficient,” she said. “Child care can be expensive. This cut will force a lot of people to stop working or studying because they can’t afford child care.”
The budget proposal also seeks to cut $2.6 million in Fund for a Healthy Maine money for home visits to families and children in the most dire of circumstances, leaving about $1.4 million in state funds in addition to $34 million in federal funding. Some of the loss will be filled with a three-year federal grant, but Reidt-Parker said the grant was meant to expand the program, not fill in where state funding has been cut.
“The primary target for this program is new parents with significant at-risk factors, like drug-affected babies and children who are at risk for abuse or neglect,” said Reidt-Parker. “These are families who really need these services. We thought we were taking three steps forward. Now we’re taking two steps back.”