As headlines warn of a looming fiscal cliff that could result in massive cuts to government programs, advocates are worrying about the fates of people who can’t yet read them.
“You hear a lot of people who want to protect defense or different tax cuts,” said Patricia Cole, the policy director for Zero to Three, a Washington-based organization that advocates for young children. “But there's not a real champion out there saying, ‘You know, we really need to take children off the table, especially young children'.”
Early-childhood education advocates, including Cole, recently reached out to President Barack Obama and congressional leaders in an effort to protect programs that serve low-income young children. Twenty-three experts in infant and toddler development, all members of the board of Zero to Three, wrote letters to Obama last week arguing that cuts to federal programs for young low-income children could place them at “significant risk for falling behind on the path to school readiness.”
The group also sent letters to Speaker of the House John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“We simply cannot afford to put vulnerable children at further risk by taking away or reducing these needed services,” said Matthew Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three. “Investments in the care and healthy development of young children must be a national priority.”
Perhaps the best-known and most important of these services is Head Start, a federal program that provides educational support and other benefits to almost one million children between the ages of 3 and 5. If Congress and the White House fail to reach a budget deal by year's end, triggering automatic across-the-board cuts of $1.2 trillion, known as the fiscal cliff or sequestration, Head Start would lose $2.7 billion over 10 years -- slots for about 100,000 children.
“That’s a huge number of kids,” said Yasmina Vinci, head of the National Head Start Association, a group that advocates for Head Start funding.
And yet, the threat of those losses has yet to prompt much discussion in Washington, she said. “It's easy for these kinds of issues to get lost in the shuffle when Congress is dealing with the top-line numbers."
It’s not just the prospect of sequestration that has advocates worrying. Vinci and others have pointed out that a “grand bargain” between Boehner and Obama could include cuts not only to Head Start, but also to other services that benefit low-income children, like food stamps and heating subsidies. “We have to be very vigilant about early childhood education in general,” Vinci said.
Despite Cole’s concern about the lack of a real champion for young children in Washington, both Cole and Vinci spoke highly of Obama, who in the past has supported early childhood education. Adviser Roberto Rodriguez recently told The Grio that fully funding Head Start will be a priority during Obama's second term.
Other outspoken supporters of Head Start include Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), and Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
"We should be calling on the wealthy to pay their fair share before asking more low-income children to do without Head Start or other programs they and their families depend on," said Murray, a former preschool teacher, in a statement provided to The Huffington Post.
Miller, the ranking member of the House education committee, also plans to stick up for Head Start. “Rep. Miller believes that balancing the budget on the backs of vulnerable kids is shortsighted and a terrible idea," spokesperson Tiffany Edwards said. Representatives from committee chairman John Kline's (R-Minn.) office did not provide a response to questions about Head Start and the budget by press time.
Harkin, who chairs the Senate education committee, expressed his support. “Investments in quality early childhood education and programs like Head Start are some of the smartest we can make, and save taxpayer dollars in the long run through reduced social services, special education, and criminal justice costs,” said Harkin.
Franken, who is convening a meeting in Minnesota on Friday to discuss the possible effects of sequestration on the lives of people in his state, also defended those investments on economic grounds. “Fully funded early childhood education programs have been shown to save up to $16 for every dollar spent,” he said, referring to a study by economist James Heckman.
Julie Steberg, a mother of four Head Start alumni, is among those scheduled to speak at Franken’s meeting on Friday. “I'm really hoping that Congress looks at the bigger picture,” she said.
Her children include a set of triplets, she said, and before they enrolled in Head Start, one of the boys seemed at risk of falling behind socially and academically. “He wasn’t talking,” she said. “When there's three of them, why would he be talking?”
Now, at the age of 11, he’s a straight-A student, she said.
But she's concerned that other people's kids might not have the opportunities he had. "If you don't have an early start now, you're behind in school," she said. "And once you're behind in school, you're always going to be behind."