Congress gets an earful from Head Start families

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The Head Start community joined with lawmakers at an Oct. 2 rally on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol to demand that Congress stand up to the fringe minority in its ranks who are using children served by Head Start and Early Head Start as pawns and hostages in the ongoing battle over the budget.

Head Start rally

The rally was an opportunity "to remind lawmakers about the desperate needs " of the nation's poorest children, particularly the 57,000 children without access to Head Start and Early Head Start because of cuts triggered under the federal budget sequestration, National Head Start Association Executive Director Yasmina Vinci told the crowd. The problem is now compounded by the federal government shutdown: Another 19,000 children are being turned away from spots because federal grants have frozen. And these rollbacks don't even begin to reflect the greater pain experienced by programs around the country—cutbacks in transportation, program hours and basic supplies—caused by the budget stalemate.

What's happening on the Hill goes beyond dollars, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a former preschool teacher and chair of the Senate Budget Committee, told the crowd. "Head Start has been pulled into this debate, " she said, "but it's really a debate over values and priorities. "

Murray recounted how she had tried 18 times on the Senate floor to introduce a budget that protects Head Start from sequestration cuts—only to be turned back each time by Tea Party politicians. In Washington state, Murray told the crowd, the cuts have meant that two-thirds of programs are being forced to drop children, reduce staff and cut hours of operation. It's led to "a downward spiral "—families forced to choose between child care and jobs—and "it does not have to be this way. "

She urged Americans to contact their representatives and demand that they "come back to the table and replace sequestration " with strong investments in early learning. Several other lawmakers also pointed to pressure from the grass roots as the key to ending the stalemate—and changing the dialogue from reckless, short-sighted cuts to critical investments in the lives of children and the future of the nation.

"Nothing is going to change for the better in this Congress unless you make it change, " said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

Head Start is an "investment in human capital and the future of this nation, " said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who is the ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "This isn't a time to cut back. This is a time to double down. "

[Mike Rose]

October 3, 2013