Sequestration Impairs Futures of At-Risk Children

This week, I was energized by a panel of early childhood education experts, stakeholders, and parents who were gathered in Washington, DC to discuss the critical role Head Start plays in creating opportunity for America's most vulnerable children. Though the discussion was anchored by a recognition of the vastly positive influence Head Start has on the lives of millions of our nation's youngest learners, the conversation centered on the devastating, downstream impacts of the federally-mandated budget cuts. Each spoke movingly about the devastating effects of sequester and emphasized the critical importance of investing in early childhood education. To a person, there was an impassioned call for investments in early learning that studies have shown deliver results for at-risk children.

It's an auspicious time for us to be thinking about ensuring that all children have access to great opportunities. Is there anyone who hasn't been moved by the celebrations this week of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington? As a nation, we reflected on a breathtakingly important moment in our nation's history -- the joy of knowing how far we've come and a stark reminder of how far we still have to go. I'm proud of Head Start's thousands of staff across the country today who play their part to give all at-risk children a chance at a better life. And proud that the current pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church - Dr. King's ministry - was himself a Head Start child.

In 2012, Head Start and Early Head Start programs across the country were serving a scant 40 percent of all eligible children. Our waiting lists were long, and over several years of flat funding with rising fixed costs in rent, energy, and health insurance, programs had already begun deferring maintenance, shrinking support staff, and lowering salaries. We have almost always operated at the margins, because it seems inconceivable not to spend every available dollar on providing the best possible quality program for every possible child.

So when the unthinkable happened, and sequestration became the new reality in March, we had little fat to cut. As a result, 57,000 fewer children will be able to attend Head Start this year, and many more vulnerable children are struggling to get the most from their Head Start experience in the many cases where critical core services were cut to limit enrollment reductions.

In fact, these data show that many programs reported cutting days from the school year, for a total of more than 1,342,000 days of service lost. Not only does this take away very critical days of early learning, but also puts parents and families in the difficult situation of finding quality, affordable child care options in order to maintain work.

If you asked me earlier this year what I would like to be talking about in 2013, my answer would not have been sequestration. Instead I would have mentioned the drumbeat of building acceptance among policymakers and citizens alike about the critical importance of investing in high-quality early education.

Health researchers have given us better and more concrete data on the effects of a healthy early childhood experience. I'm thrilled to see the think tanks in Washington paying more and more attention to this issue, and to find new allies and supporters in Congress every week. I'm overjoyed to be working with the business community on this issue, and to be talking about it as an issue of readiness for the future of our economic viability. There has never been a moment in history when national recognition of the value of early learning was this universal. Sequestration was a swift punch. It took the wind out of the sails of the millions affiliated with today's Head Start--our families, our staff, our volunteers, and our advocates. In the midst of this anxiety, our best champion, President Obama, announced his plans to propose massive new investments in high-quality early learning. This is what we should be talking about.

We have more data behind us now than ever before. We have more acceptance on the part of states and local communities behind us than ever before. But the stalemate over the budget and our lingering shock that sequestration has not been restored prevents us from diverting our attention to new initiatives while we are still cutting children from our programs.

In the end, the wise direction for early education is clear: investments matter greatly and they return much more for America in value than the initial cost. Adding to today's investments with smart strategies and leveraging productive partnerships will continue to deliver results and put vulnerable children on the path to success.