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Politics

Rep. Castor says Head Start at risk due to budget cutbacks

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Published:   |   Updated: May 1, 2013 at 07:35 AM
TAMPA -

Florida’s Head Start early education program will have to turn away 2,000 children next year if Congress doesn’t fix automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, Congresswoman Kathy Castor said Tuesday.

Castor, a Tampa Democrat, used a backdrop of a dozen 4- and 5-year-olds at a press conference to rail against “Tea Party Republicans” who she says are acting “irresponsibly” by their insistence that the cuts hit all federal programs equally.

The cuts the so-called sequestration cuts will reduce federal funding for Hillsborough County’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs by $1.4 million out of a total budget $34.6 million. The cuts will lead to the closing of some slots for youngsters in fiscal year 2014, said Marie Mason, the county’s deputy director of programming for Head Start.

“I would hate to give a number but there could be a large number of children that slots will be lost to,” Mason said.

The cuts locally will also eliminate planned playgrounds, reduce classroom supplies and bus services and cancel teacher training, according to county records.

Nationally, Head Start could lose $398 million in federal funding due to sequestration cuts, meaning 70,000 fewer children will be enrolled, Castor’s office estimated.

Castor noted that Congress last week eliminated sequester-related furlough days for air traffic controllers that caused major flight delays around the country.

“They were able to solve that problem,” Castor said. “What we’re maintaining is that the children in Head Start are just as important as the travelers and delays in airports and should be addressed swiftly as well.”

Head Start pre-school program, which is funded by federal and local dollars, serves low-income children ages 3 to 5. The goal is to ready them for kindergarten and first grade through instruction in language, math, science and phonics, Mason said.

“The goal is having the children read to read by third grade,” she said.

Early Head Start is for infants, six weeks to 2 years of age. The program involves singing and rhyming, nutrition and creating a nurturing environment so the toddlers can transition to pre-school.

About 3,472 children are enrolled in the county’s Head Start program and partner programs run by the Hillsborough public school system, the YMCA and Lutheran Services. The YMCA and Lutheran Services run Early Head Start services for infants and toddlers; the school system is solely for pre-schoolers; and the county program, with 1,280 kids, services both.

Castor said 1,000 kids are on the waiting list for county Head Start services.

She cited a report released Monday by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University which showed state funding nationally for pre-kindergarten programs had its largest drop ever last year. States are now spending less per child on those programs than they were a decade ago, the report said.

Florida ranks 38th among the states in pre-kindergarten spending, according to the study. Last year, the state spent $2,281 on every child enrolled in the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program. That was $352 less per child than the state spent in 2006.

“We are behind almost every other developed Democracy in the world in the resources we invest in our children, Castor said.

Castor introduced several Head Start parents at the press conference who said the program had helped them as well as their children.

Lyndsay Salbuske said after her marriage broke up, she couldn’t support her children with a part time job and had to enter a women’s shelter. The family’s situation improved dramatically, however, after she enrolled her handicapped son, Mikey, and daughter Lillian in Head Start.

Salbuske, who had a bachelor’s degree, was able to find a job teaching social studies to sixth graders and become self-sufficient.

“I met people where I was (in the shelter) that tried to get on their feet, but they couldn’t.” Salbuske said. “Without this program, I’d be one of them.”

Siria Nunez enrolled her son, Alejandro, in Head Start when he was barely 4. She said he was shy at the time, but came out of his shell after just a few days at the pre-school program. Alejandro, now 5, knows his colors, shapes, letters, and is starting to read.

“He can count to 200,” Nunez said. “Right now, he’s ready for kindergarten.”


msalinero@tampatrib.com

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