As Congress scrambles to come up with an emergency funding plan and avoid a government shutdown before Oct. 1, coordinators of federal programs with big chunks of money on the line are crossing their fingers that the congressional gridlock doesn’t lead to another round of cutbacks on top of already devastating sequestration.

Among the first programs to typically take a hit are Head Start and its offshoot Early Head Start, both of which provide comprehensive pre-kindergarten services to very poor, at-risk children and their families. Advocates stress the programs, whose $8 billion budget already lost 5.2 percent of its money and 57,000 slots under sequestration put in place earlier this year, play an important role in closing the achievement gap.

Expected cuts to the federal program, exacerbated by sequestration, could be particularly detrimental for Hawaii’s preschoolers next school year because the state is eliminating junior kindergarten. That means many of the 747 children currently enrolled in Head Start who are turning four between August and December next year will get to stay in the program an extra year, consuming preschool spots that would typically go to other needy kids.

Hawaii Executive Office on Early Learning Director GG Weisenfeld called it the “ripple-down effect.”

And there are other reasons Hawaii’s Head Start program is especially vulnerable to fallout from the congressional budget gridlock and the looming $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, which the federal government is expected reach in mid-October. For one, according to Weisenfeld, Hawaii can’t leverage state funds because its Head Start program, unlike those in 20 or so other states, is almost entirely reliant on federal monies because of a state constitutional provision that prohibits the public funding of private preschool providers.

Head Start contracts with preschools to provide services to about 2,660 children in Hawaii. Ninety percent of the children need to come from families whose incomes are at or below the poverty level, which for a family of four in Hawaii last year meant a total income of $26,510. Other students include those who have special needs, live in foster families or are eligible for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Each isle county maintains a wait list of about 180 children, forcing the contractors to prioritize based on a set of factors, including poverty level and social circumstances. But often even the neediest of children don’t land a spot.

And that could be pushing Hawaii even further behind in the preschool movement that’s gaining traction throughout the country, said Jacce Mikulanec, policy and community partnerships director of the early education advocacy group Good Beginnings Alliance.

“We can’t trust Congress to not let” Head Start take a hit, he said. “(Hawaii’s) failing to advance as fast as we should. The sad thing is that if you don’t get kids the start they need early on it just comes back to bite you.”

Mandatory sequestration slashed all the budgets for the state’s six Head Start contractors by 5 percent, or roughly $1.3 million total. Head Start centers on Oahu, which make up the largest Head Start network in the state, took the biggest hit.

And while the Hawaii Head Start program gets support from individual counties, outside grants and parents and community agencies that provide on-site services, it’s never enough.

Weisenfeld said the various contractors have managed to make do with sequestration for the most part, slashing 60 preschool slots since March and taking up the rest through cutbacks on staff positions, salaries, hours of operation and other classroom expenditures. For example, almost all the state’s programs have reduced the number of hours staff work — for some employees as many as eight hours a week. Others have imposed one-week furloughs or dipped into budgets reserved for classroom materials or field trips.

Still, overhead costs severely affect the children, too, said Debbi Amaral, who runs the Head Start programs in Maui County and serves as president of the Head Start Association of Hawaii and Outer Pacific.

Head Start, she said, isn’t a typical preschool program because it’s very involved with the family.

“We’re very dependent on a budget that supports all the essential elements,” she said, noting that the cost of offering quality services — such as employing those with early education degrees — continues to go up. “What’s so delicate about Head Start programs is that the funding is so interconnected.”

Each Head Start teacher, she said, also serves as a de facto social worker, connecting students and families with mental health and dental services, for example.

Maui Head Start centers have chopped the most preschool slots in the state, cutting 20 slots during sequestration after already having slashed another 20 before. Maui now serves 258 Head Start students.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s something that we will not need to endure again,” Amaral said.

Amaral said she’s worried that the phasing-out of the state’s junior kindergarten program will have a slew of unintended repercussions for families and the federal preschool program alike. Junior kindergarten, which is slated for elimination starting with the 2014-15 school year, allowed 4-year-olds born after July to enroll in kindergarten.

The program’s elimination was envisioned by early education advocates and some lawmakers as an impetus for rolling out a state-funded preschool program, including an initial “School Readiness” initiative for the 5,100 or so late-born 4-year-olds and then a large-scale public preschool network for all 18,000 4-year-olds.

But the Legislature during the 2013 session only passed a small version of the school readiness program. It provides $7.16 million over two years to expand a small-scale state preschool program for needy children known as Preschool Open Doors. It’s only expected to serve 900 students.

Voters will decide whether to amend the constitution — the same provision that prevents the state from subsidizing Head Start — on a ballot question this November, after which lawmakers will decide whether to expand the larger-scale preschool program.

Weisenfeld, whose office spearheaded the state preschool initiative, said the constitutional amendment is important to both efforts to expand preschool and sustain Head Start.

“I’m obviously not for the DOE getting vouchers, but in early childhood it’s different because we don’t have a large institutional organization like the DOE, and we really rely on private providers,” said Weisenfeld, who’s worked in many places where state-supported Head Start centers are common.

For now, the “ripple-down” effect will be felt in preschools across the state, and especially in Head Start centers. Head Start is guaranteeing every late-born 4-year-old already enrolled in a center a third-year spot as long as that child still meets eligibility requirements, Amaral said.

Amaral’s also worried that most families aren’t aware that junior kindergarten is coming to an end and will be stuck without childcare options come next school year. She said local Head Start centers have already changed their policies to make sure new students have turned three or four by July 31 to prepare parents.

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