Budget cuts caused by the recent sequester in the U.S. Congress have decreased the number of students able to join the Family Resource Agency’s Head Start Program in both Tennessee and Georgia.
The order dictated the agency to cut its early education budget by a little over 5 percent.
Chief Executive Officer James Anderson explained the cut is not as small as it first appears.
“In the past 10 years, Head Start has been practically flat funded,” Anderson said. “All that time, things continued to go up — insurance, supplies, gas, electricity — so we had to sit down with our policy council and our board of directors to figure out what to do.”
The Head Start classes in question are offered in both Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia through the local FRA office. A total of 10 counties are serviced, including Bradley, Polk, Meigs and McMinn.
Almost 500 children were enrolled in the local counties’ Head Start programs prior to the sequester. A total of 50 slots were cut to adjust for the budget.
In addition, 12 staff positions from the Tennessee offices and programs were erased.
These two moves saved the program $280,000.
Budget cuts directly affect how many students can be helped through the Head Start program.
Anderson explained money is not carried over from year to year. The government assigns how much will be allotted and the agency determines how many children can be helped.
Fifty slots may not seem like a lot in comparison to the 444 remaining in Southeast Tennessee.
Anderson explained another view needs to be taken on the benefits of Head Start.
“The reason Head Start was created to begin with in the 1960s, was a number of kids showed up in kindergarten or the first grade and they were really behind their peers,” Anderson said. “If they are behind when they start, then it is like starting a race with a disadvantage.”
Head Start initially ran as a summer program. Today, the program runs about nine months of the year to parallel the grade school schedule.
According to Anderson, a noticeable difference can be seen between the kids from disadvantaged homes who attend Head Start and those who do not. He said those attending are basically on even footing with their peers on the first day of school.
Noticeable gains for pre-school age children have encouraged the agency to expand the program. There are now classes for both Head Start with 3- and 4-year-olds as well as Early Head Start for infants through 3 years of age.
Anderson expressed his frustration over Congress’ inability to fix the budget.
He also explained supporting programs like Head Start might even save the nation money in the long run.
“It takes a lot more resources to help kids succeed who come to school unprepared,” Anderson explained before adding, “It is cheaper to give kids education than to keep them in jail when they become adults.
He explained the Family Resource Agency is in the business of building children.
“The reason we want to build great children is so we don’t have to repair so many adults when they get older,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to put time and effort and money into preparing the field. You can’t just go out there and throw corn seed onto a field.”
Anderson continued, “You aren’t going to get much in return, especially if the ground is pretty rocky. If you take the time to fix the soil and create the type of environment a child will benefit from, then these are the types of things which will have a payoff.”