White House warns of Head Start cuts in California


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced Monday that about 5,600 low-income California children would be shut out of federally funded Head Start preschool programs because of Washington budget gridlock.

But the announcement bewildered state officials, who cautioned that the number of children with no place to go come September could be much smaller than the administration’s estimate, although they did agree that the budget cuts would be disruptive.

Rather than showing a clear example of how the government’s across-the-board budget cuts have hurt important programs, the figures demonstrated once again that the effects of spending reductions often appear far different on the ground than they do in official pronouncements.


The administration’s announcement that 57,200 children nationwide were expected to lose access to preschool this fall came as the White House and congressional Republicans prepared for another budget showdown next month. The numbers were first reported by the Washington Post and later more widely distributed to the media.

PHOTOS: 2013’s memorable political moments

In California, the administration’s estimate that 5,600 low-income children would be affected represents about 5% of the state’s Head Start enrollment. The administration’s numbers, however, did not take into account efforts in several states, including California, to cushion the impact of federal cuts.

As a result, the administration’s count “may not reflect what could happen in California,” said Nancy Remley, an education administrator with the California Department of Education. Over the summer, the Legislature approved a $25-million increase in money for state preschool programs, enough to create 7,000 slots for the coming academic year, Remley said. Slots in the state program are based on need, so Head Start children would probably get priority, she said.

Russ Whitehurst, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the state’s expanded program “should cover all the families who were eligible for Head Start.”

But the suddenness of the federal cuts will probably complicate many families’ plans and leave some with no place to send their children, he added.

“The problem with sequestration is it is a cliff,” he said. “There is no time for ramp up or adjustment.”

In addition, the state program provides more limited services than does the federal Head Start program, said Keesha Woods, director of the Head Start-State Preschool division of Los Angeles County.

PHOTOS: Team Obama, where are they now?

“A child may be able to get into another program, but would they still get the necessary services to adequately prepare them for kindergarten?” Woods said. “The answer is no. There is a vast difference between state and federal programs.”

The federal government typically spends up to $10,000 per child enrolled in Head Start, she said. The state programs are funded about $3,000 per child.

The extra money helps pay for a host of services, including therapists for children with developmental disabilities, social workers to help families with histories of domestic abuse and other problems, medical and dental care, and two meals a day.

“We are working with children to prepare them to go into mainstream kindergarten classes,” said Rick Mockler, executive director of the California Head Start Assn. “This is a window of opportunity where we are literally laying down the brain structure. It is not like an adult education course, where it is not available this year and will resume next year. These families are losing a critical service that could have made a transformative impact.”

Not all experts agree. Whitehurst suggested the lower-funded state program may be more effective.

“State pre-kindergarten programs provide a curriculum aligned with the curriculum the children will be following once they get to kindergarten,” he said. “Head Start is not integrated into state educational systems.

“In general, where there have been comparisons of children who attended Head Start and those who attended state programs, the children who attended state programs do better.”