The cutback in federal spending has sent 30 local pre-kindergarten children home for the rest of the school year.
The local Head Start program had to close two classrooms and lay off staff to meet the sudden cut required by the federal cutback, called a sequester.
Early Head Start also may have to make cuts, beginning May 1.
Nationally, about 70,000 children will have to leave their early-education programs because of the cuts.
Schenectady Head Start, which is for children ages 3 and 4, was in the middle of its budget year when the 5 percent cut went into effect, forcing it to make immediate cuts to stay within its new budget.
Schenectady Community Action Program Executive Director Debra Schimpf had warned, prior to the cuts going into effect, that it would be devastating to the program. She had to cut about $300,000 — which meant laying off workers and closing two classrooms, sending home 30 children. Before the cuts, SCAP’s Head Start program served 321 families in 19 classrooms and two home-based programs. In six weeks, further cuts may have to be made at Schenectady’s Early Head Start, which is for children from infancy to age 3.
Directors of the programs aren’t happy.
“I know everybody’s got to do their part, but 3-year-olds?” said Raymond Schimmer, CEO of Northern Rivers, which works in partnership to run Early Head Start in Schenectady County. He was disgusted that the federal government allowed automatic budget cuts to go into effect.
“This is the stupidest decision,” he said, citing research that shows Head Start has an effect on poor children’s reading skills in early elementary school. The goal of Head Start is to help poor children catch up with their affluent peers.
“If we start early, we can help so much more effectively,” Schimmer said. “We don’t have more evidence for anything we do than early support.”
The 5 percent federal cut isn’t the only one hitting preschool children hard this year. Schenectady County also cut back on subsidized daycare for working parents. That pushed many parents to Head Start as their only affordable option for daycare.
“The county had to cut back so much on subsidized daycare that, for many poor families, Head Start is a main option,” Schimmer said.
He’s trying to find ways to avoid cutting teachers, which would force the program to send children home for the school year.
He’s hoping the automatic budget cuts are withdrawn soon. If it looks like the cuts will only last a few months, he wants to try to keep the program running through donations.
“We can take a loss for a little while,” he said. “That can’t be a forever solution.”
So if he must make permanent cuts, he said he would try first to cut back on non-classroom programs, such as the home visits in which counselors teach parenting skills.
National Head Start urged local groups to maintain the quality of their programs and to avoid, if possible, cutting children before the end of the program year.
Head Start groups can cut slots — particularly vacant slots — or cut back on the number of days in the school year, according to National Head Start. But they can’t cut services, according to a fact sheet issued to the groups by National Head Start.
“The first priority for all programs is to maintain a high quality of service provided to children and families and to ensure their health and safety,” the sheet said.
The national agency is organizing opposition to the automatic budget cuts. On the main page of its website, www.nhsa.org, it offers ways for residents to contact their federal legislators, raise money and organize protests.
The agency also asked local groups not to keep their cuts quiet.
“We hope you will help us reinforce the message that financing deficit reduction on the backs of poor children will put our country on an unsustainable and downward path,” the agency said on its website.