Sequester Slamming Shut Windows of Opportunity

In 1965, Washington made a commitment that was true to our identity as a nation. Leaders in the White House and Congress created Head Start to ensure that the window of opportunity was never closed to a child facing challenging circumstances. Without access to high-quality early education, the chances for success of at-risk children are dampened considerably. Head Start was a significant national commitment to deliver early learning services in vulnerable communities.

Nearly 28 million children have attended Head Start since then. They and their families have benefited from whole child, whole family interventions including nutrition, health, and early learning services. Research has shown this comprehensive model benefits not just students but also parents, who can then support their children's success over time. That's 28 million windows opened, and 28 million futures brightened in a commitment that has stood for 48 years.

Yet today, those windows of opportunity are slamming shut on our at-risk children. Automatic budget cuts in Washington could reduce Head Start slots by 70,000 in 2013 alone. These cuts, part of the "sequester," are dealing a devastating blow to Head Start centers across the country. More than $400 million in sequester cuts will shutter access to critical early childhood services. Without those services, at-risk children and their families will suffer the consequences of misplaced priorities in our nation's capital.

Sequestrations's dire impact is one more punch in the gut to communities who've been struggling. The financial crash and Great Recession have pushed the rate of child poverty to more than one in four -- that's more than six million children, under six years of age, in four-person families whose annual income is under $23,000.

Head Start has remained dedicated to serving the most vulnerable children and families, and that commitment is especially critical in times when the economy batters those families hardest of all. The distressing reality is that Head Start has never been able to serve more than a fraction of eligible children. In 2011-2012, fewer than half of three and four year-olds who qualified could enroll in Head Start. Only one in twenty children under three were able to find a space that year. There is no affordable alternative for many of their families. Children left on waiting lists are at risk of being left in unsafe environments while their parents work.

The sequester has already done harm to early learning classrooms all across the country. The light which shines on every Head Start child has been obscured. But we cannot watch as sequestration robs more at-risk children of their brighter futures. We must hold open those windows, and indeed take a stance on opening more. As a nation, we must reaffirm the importance of delivering on our commitment to early learning.

If we choose to speak up now, we can fortify those opportunities and build upon the success of Head Start. That success is defined by an alumni network of accomplished professionals whose stories are the best argument for continued investment in high quality early education. These 28 million alumni include children who have gone on to become business owners and artists, musicians and doctors, teachers and Members of Congress and exceptional parents to their own children. More than any others, our alumni know the reality of how a Head Start in life leads to success.