Failed leadership harms children

Suffice it to say that October 2013 tested the resiliency of Head Start children, families and advocates nationwide. Head Start Awareness Month is normally devoted to the celebration of our 50-year national commitment to providing quality early learning to America’s most vulnerable children. Unfortunately, on the very first day of Head Start Awareness Month, 19,000 of those children faced the risk of shuttered doors when the federal government shut down because Congress could not agree on a budget.

The 16-day government shutdown was not the first tremor to hit Head Start. Programs across the country were already working from bare bones budgets because of harmful sequester cuts. The across-the-board budget reduction resulted in more than 57,000 at-risk children immediately losing access to Head Start services.

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Still reeling from those federally imposed cuts, hundreds of Head Start families, teachers and administrators gathered at the steps of the U.S. Capitol to call on Congress to agree on a forward-looking fiscal policy that repaired the damage done by sequestration and the government shutdown. Despite the Head Start community’s cry for constructive negotiation, by the end of the first week in October programs serving more than 7,000 children could not access approved grant funding and doors were being closed.

Fortunately for those 19,000 children at risk of losing access to Head Start because of the government shutdown, philanthropists Laura and John Arnold extended up to $10 million in emergency funding and ensured that every child was able to stay in their Head Start classroom despite Washington gridlock.

However, if the government didn’t reopen by November 1, additional Head Start programs serving more than 86,000 children in 41 states and one U.S. Territory risked losing access to approved funding. While the entire Head Start community was tremendously grateful to the Arnolds for their compassion and generosity, it was abundantly clear angel investors could not offer a sustainable solution to the funding crisis threatening tens of thousands of America’s poorest children.

Thankfully, a deal was reached to re-open the government and re-affirm America’s creditworthiness. But, new deadlines loom and Head Start must prepare for more turbulence in the coming months. As it stands now, Head Start centers must look warily at January 15 when the interim funding agreement will expire.  Congress must work together to adopt a responsible, forward looking fiscal policy that prevents any further damage from sequestration.

When I made plans for October 2013, I had hoped to join Head Start programs across the country in celebrating Head Start Awareness Month. I envisioned Head Start teachers and students, Head Start parents, and an alumni network 28 million strong taking time to mark the national commitment our country has made to our poorest children. I did not – and America’s most committed early education advocates did not – imagine this October as a time for crisis intervention simply to keep Head Start doors open.

It’s time leaders on Capitol Hill answer a simple question with extraordinary implications: do we, as Americans, stand by our national commitment to provide high-quality early education to our children regardless of the zip code of their birth?

I encourage Congress to think long and hard on this question. Crisis-to-crisis governance is a vastly inadequate approach to meeting the needs of a new generation. Head Start’s resilient community waits patiently on elected leaders for a clear sign, a decisive step in the right direction for our youngest, and most in need of opportunity.

Vinci is executive director of the National Head Start Association.