Looming government shutdown rattles families relying on Head Start program for disadvantaged children

Government Shutdown Head Start (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Government Shutdown Head Start (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

As Monette Ferguson braces for the looming government shutdown to strip funding from her Head Start program for disadvantaged children in Connecticut, she harkens back to a decade ago when another congressional budget fight forced her to close preschools.

This time around she is more prepared, with money in reserve to keep serving around 550 children at 14 Head Start sites operating in three different towns. But only for about 30 days.

“It’s like a gut punch to our system,” said Ferguson, who is the executive director of the Alliance for Community Empowerment.

If the shutdown isn’t averted, Head Start programs serving more than 10,000 children would immediately lose federal funding, including Ferguson's program. Lawmakers have until Saturday to reach a deal, but that is looking less and less likely.

The programs set to lose money serve just a fraction of the 820,000 children enrolled nationally at any given time. Located in Florida, Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts and South Carolina, they are in trouble because their grants start on Sunday, just as the shutdown would begin, said Tommy Sheridan, the deputy director for the National Head Start Association.

They wouldn’t necessarily close their doors immediately. Various entities run the programs, including school districts, YMCAs and other nonprofits. Depending on how deep their pockets are, some of these operators, like Ferguson's program, could readjust their finances to keep the programs going, at least short term.

“But from the ones that I’ve spoken to, there are some that really don’t have extensive possibilities," Sheridan said.

Many are located in poor communities, close to the families they seek to lift out of poverty with programs that include preschool as well as services to infants and toddlers that include home visits. Over the course of a year, as children come and go, the number served tops 1 million.

Programs whose grants don’t start on Sunday will continue getting money, said Bobby Kogan, the senior director of federal budget policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. But, he said, if the shutdown drags on, the number of affected programs will grow as more grants come up up for renewal.

“This will get worse and worse and worse,” he said.

That's what worries Lori Milam, executive director of the West Virginia Head Start. One of its grants is up for renewal in November, so she's been making back-up plans and reassuring worried staff and parents.

“It’s consuming an enormous amount of our time,” she said.

Complicating the situation further, one budget proposal would cut $750 million from the nearly $12 billion program, which would eliminate tens of thousands of spots. All the uncertainty has spooked some workers into considering looking for what “they believe is a more stable job,” said Philip Shelly, a spokesperson for Democratic U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, of Illinois.

This is a particular concern with nearly 20% of Head Start staff positions vacant nationwide, according to the National Head Start Association.

The timing couldn't be worse. Child care programs were propped up during the pandemic with $24 billion in federal relief, but the last of the money has to be spent by Saturday. Another pot of COVID-19 relief funds that helped Head Start ran out in the spring.

Some states, like Minnesota, New York and Maine, have chipped in extra money to fill in the gaps as the federal funding dries up, but those efforts are not universal, said Maureen Coffey, a policy analyst on the early childhood policy team at the Center for American Progress.

“It’s going to be a really messy time for child care,” she said.

Child care already was strained before the pandemic closed some centers, said Lynn Karoly, a senior economist at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit global policy think tank.

“We haven’t addressed really, in most cases, the fundamental problem of an underfunded system overall,” she said. “But now you have the potential of a shutdown on top of it.”

The 16-day October 2013 shutdown was the last to hit Head Start hard, affecting 19,000 children and shuttering programs in several states.

About half as many programs are affected now because many moved away from having their grant start date coincide with the beginning of the federal fiscal year. One reason, Sheridan said, is that the Oct. 1 date makes them more vulnerable when Congress deadlocks over the budget.

It was so bad a decade ago that Connecticut chipped in emergency funds, which allowed Ferguson's program to reopen.

Meanwhile, John and Laura Arnold, a wealthy Houston couple, pledged up to $10 million to the National Head Start Association to help other programs. Among the programs the donation helped reopen was one in Florida.

Tim Center, the chief executive officer at the Capital Area Community Action Agency, lived through that mess. This time around he has a backup plan that will allow him to keep serving more than 370 kids and families at six centers in three counties in northern Florida for several weeks. But it means tapping into savings and a line of credit.

Families still are spooked. Laketia Washington, a mother of eight whose 3- and 5-year-olds attend Head Start programs in Tallahassee, Florida, lamented the turmoil as she rang up customers at a discount store.

“The nerve wracking thing," she said, “is not knowing what’s next.”