By Dan Heyman
Cuts to federal Head Start may hurt West Virginia’s highly praised state early-education efforts. Since West Virginia has committed to universal pre-kindergarten, every 4-year-old in the state can attend a public preschool. However, that program is blended with federal Head Start and child care, and budget gridlock in Congress already has cut Head Start, with more cuts scheduled.
Clayton Burch, executive director, state Office of Early Learning at the W.V. Dept. of Education, said Head Start means at-risk kids here get the support they need. He said they could still attend pre-K, but that important extra support is being undermined.
“Having high-quality pre-school for at-risk, low-income families has been part of our comprehensive approach. If they take another hit, we’re very concerned that the additional services that come as being part of being enrolled in Head Start won’t be there,” he said.
The state provides most of the pre-K funding; Head Start picks up a bit more than 25 percent.
West Virginia worked hard to build what is by some measures one of the nation’s best early-education efforts, Burch said, adding that lawmakers realized money invested there pays off many times over later on. They were counting on Head Start to provide some important pieces, however, which they are now worried might be taken away, he said.
“All the additional services Head Start brings to the table – family services, health services – in addition to that West Virginia pre-K classroom,” he explained, “that’s the big impact we’re going to have.”
About three-quarters of the pre-K classes are actually located in spaces outside of public classrooms, he said. Although some of those are provided by Head Start, they are not as worried about replacing that part if it’s lost, he said.
“The county may have to, now, open up or have that classroom under them. But typically, what you’re seeing is a really big impact on the family service/health wraparound,” he said.
Because of automatic cuts from budget sequestration, Head Start is serving nearly 60,000 fewer U.S. children this year, 500 of them in West Virginia. More cuts are coming unless Congress can agree on a budget fix.