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Head Start Data Show 57,000 Children Will Lose Access to Pre-K

Published:  August 20, 2013

This post originally appeared on our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today released first-of-its-kind data exploring the effects of sequestration on early education. The study, which compiled so-called reduction plans from Head Start grantees, shows that in the current 2012-13 program year, more than 57,000 children will lose access to Head Start services.

The Head Start data offer the first comprehensive look at how education practitioners are coping with the sequester that went into effect in March of this year. The sequester, which was preserved through 2021 in the Budget Control Act of 2011 after high-stakes budget negotiations that summer, required all federal agencies (with few exceptions) to make systematic, across-the-board budget cuts at the program level. That meant virtually all education programs – Head Start, Title I grants to school districts, and work-study among them – were cut by 5.0 percent, ultimately effective March 1, 2013. (For much more on the fiscal year 2013 budget, check out our issue brief, Federal Education Budget Update: Fiscal Year 2013 Recap and Fiscal Year 2014 Early Analysis.)

The new HHS data reveal that Head Start centers coped in other ways with the mid-year reduction in funds, in addition to the loss of Head Start seats for low-income children. Nationwide, Head Start will have offered about 18,000 fewer hours per day. Some reduced the number of days per year they will operate – 1.3 million fewer days annually. Still others laid off or cut pay for 18,000 Head Start teachers.

But Head Start programs are alone in this transparency. There’s still far too little information about how K-12 programs are dealing with the cuts, aside from anecdotal media reports and surveys from advocacy groups. And many K-12 programs will likely have more latitude than early education programs in absorbing the sequester cuts, given that the two biggest programs – Title I grants to school districts and special education grants to states – are forward funded, allowing districts to push off the cuts by another school year and take advantage of the longer planning period.

But that’s why the Head Start report is so significant. It proves that sequestration has had serious, on-the-ground effects for low-income children. Admittedly, the 57,000 number is lower than the administration’s previous estimate of 70,000, but both are so dismal, it’s hard to cheer the better-than-anticipated number of seats lost. For the first time, the administration has systematically calculated the effects of the sequester on a program, and the results are not pretty.

Moreover, this is not the end of the pain for Head Start, or for other education programs. The Budget Control Act calls for another $18 billion reduction in discretionary (appropriations) funding in fiscal year 2014, which begins on October 1, 2013. If Congress can’t reach an agreement on where to make the cuts – or on “turning off” the sequester – education programs can expect yet another round of automatic cuts. And we here at Ed Money Watch are not too optimistic about the odds for a congressional compromise, given that the House and Senate are miles apart in even their top-level budget numbers. If the new Head Start data are any indication, that would almost certainly spell out more bad news for the low-income kids those federal dollars are meant to support.

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