EDITORIAL: Restore Head Start funds

IMAGINE WHAT A FEELING of pride it must give Congress to have acted so quickly to prevent commercial airlines and their passengers from being inconvenienced by the automatic budget cuts following the so-called sequestration. It didn’t require more revenue, just a vote to permit flexibility in how cuts were made. Lawmakers knew that keeping air travelers like themselves comfortable was a top national priority.

But you know how this goes: once you let one agency learn how to do more with less they’ll all want to tinker with the arbitrary rules on across-the-board cuts. Look what’s happening with the Head Start program around the country and right here in Columbia County. Head Start supporters actually suggest that they know more about preparing three- and four-year-olds for school than members of Congress.

 

The Head Start program in the county is run by Columbia Opportunities, Inc., a private, non-profit agency. Because of the $100,000 hit to Columbia Opportunities’ budget as the result of sequestration, the agency has closed its Head Start classrooms one day a week in Hudson, Chatham and Philmont. The Taconic Hills Head Start classroom will lose staff time. The cuts might bite deeper in the fall, because the funding reductions under sequestration are retroactive to last November.

Talk about Big Government, Head Start is the largest single pre-school program in the county, with 146 slots in 9 classrooms. It’s free to the participants, and Congress is making a point that in these hard times Head Start beneficiaries–or their parents–should pay for these services.
This approach won’t help the government’s bills; 97% of Head Start kids in Columbia County live in families with incomes at or below the federal poverty line. Poverty is calculated as an income of less than $24,000 a year for a family of four, and it’s surprising how little disposable income you have when you’re feeding, housing and clothing four people on less than $462 a week. For the record the majority of kids in the county Head Start program are white.

Supporters of Head Start cite research showing that the program pays long-term dividends of something like $7 to $9 for every $1 invested. The numbers are based on the increased income of kids who finish school instead of dropping out. Head Start kids are healthier too, which puts less of a burden on the economy.

But ignore these appeals. Congressional leaders say they will stick by their guns rather than yield on sequestration. And that would be great for the budget except for the problem nobody seems to talk about: local taxes.

Head Start is a federally funded program, and many in Congress apparently lack the fortitude to pull the plug on it. So while the funding gets cut, Head Start is required to meet the same high standards required when the program had more money to spend. The way to achieve that is by helping fewer kids. But who picks up the slack when, before you know it, children who are now 3 and 4 turn 5 and 6 and start attending public school? You guessed it, the burden falls on those of us who pay school taxes.

Remember that the federal government also insists that public schools must improve the performance of their students. So our schools will now have to make provisions for teaching more kids who are less prepared to learn. School boards may ask voters to ignore the tax cap and embrace higher taxes. Or they may continue to whittle away the distinctive programs that used to make American public schools envied around of the world.
Either way this whole game lets Congress pretend it’s doing us a favor by cutting the budget when all that’s really happening is that the federal government is foisting its responsibilities onto the backs of local taxpayers. Sound familiar?

Some parts of the government are exempt from these mindless cuts, including defense spending. So Congress could draft all students and teachers into the Army, which has plenty of money and could educate everyone. The drawbacks to this plan are that it would make the U.S look a lot like North Korea and the Army lacks helmets for three-year-old soldiers.

Congress has bet that voters are gullible enough to believe the country can solve national problems by pretending shortsighted cuts have no long-term consequences. If we don’t speak up now and confront the absurdity that slashing Head Start helps strengthen the nation, what lesson have we learned? What lesson do we teach?

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