It’s well known that investments in early childhood education reap long-term rewards. “The foundation for a strong workforce begins at birth,” reads the 2012 “ Making Maine Work” report by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation.
At a time when more than 20 percent of Maine’s youngest live in families earning less than the poverty level, and 47 percent live in low-income families, it makes no sense for the government to neglect quality early learning programs like Head Start, which not only let mothers and fathers work to support their little ones but give children a greater chance of succeeding in and out of school.
Yet Congress allowed sequestration to take effect March 1, resulting in $85 billion in broad-based cuts to federal programs and departments. Sequestration happened because a “supercommittee” tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade failed, and Congress couldn’t agree on a solution, leading to automatic funding reductions for programs dear to Republicans and Democrats alike.
The cuts to Head Start, a federal program for children from birth to age 5, will only harm the economic prospects of the state and its children. In Maine, Head Start will lose $1.61 million in 2013, according to the Maine Head Start Directors Association. About 360 children, out of 4,433 served in the 2011-12 school year, will not be placed in a classroom. Twenty-two classrooms will close, and 86 Head Start workers will lose their jobs.
Moms and dads in each county will lose a service that, even before the cuts, had resources to only serve 30 percent of eligible families.
Oxford and Franklin counties will lose 55 enrollment openings and 12 jobs. York County will lose 49 enrollment slots and nine jobs. In Penobscot, Piscataquis and Knox counties, it’s 45 slots, 10 jobs. Hancock and Washington: 43 slots, eight jobs. Northern Kennebec and Somerset: 34 slots, six jobs. Southern Kennebec: 28 slots, eight jobs. Cumberland: 34 slots, five jobs. Aroostook: 30 slots, six jobs. Sagadahoc, Lincoln: 20 slots, four jobs. Androscoggin: 15 slots, 17 jobs. Waldo: seven slots, one job.
There would be an uproar if businesses were closing like this. We want to see an uproar from Maine’s congressional delegation, which has some power to reverse the cuts.
Congress can act when it wants to. This spring, the House and Senate quickly approved legislation, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to release $253 million to air traffic control operations less than a week after an increase in flight delays caused by sequestration. The percentage of flights at major American airports that waited more than an hour to take off had grown to 1.4 percent from 0.7 percent, according to a consulting company called masFlight. The percentage that waited from 31 to 60 minutes increased to 9.5 percent from 7.2 percent.
An increase in delays at the airport is a tangible problem. The harm caused by eliminating Head Start openings for poor children is more invisible. But the loss is pronounced. The same urgency shown to fixing flight delays can surely be applied to Head Start.
Maine’s congressional delegation has bemoaned the sequester and the fact that Congress could not find an alternative. They support Head Start and do not want to see classroom closures. The program is an economic development tool: those who receive consistent, nurturing early childhood education go on to show higher levels of educational attainment, require fewer special education services and are more likely to graduate from high school.
Maine’s representatives and senators should continue to fight this battle — fiercely.