Among the most detrimental effects of last week’s federal government shutdown was the cutoff of federal funding for a vital program that serves hundreds of thousands of the nation’s most vulnerable children and families. Head Start is designed to provide comprehensive pre-kindergarten education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. In Connecticut, Head Start programs currently serve approximately 6,600 three-, four- and five-year-old children in low-income families. Research has consistently shown that low-income children who have access to quality early care and education are more successful in school and in the workforce. Head Start provides these services to the children and families who need it most.
As a result of the government shutdown, over 1,200 of Connecticut’s low-income young children and families in the Bridgeport area — almost 20% of all children served in Connecticut — lost access to Head Start effective October 1st. (Head Start programs that begin their fiscal year on October 1st, like the Bridgeport Head Start programs, were the first to lose their funding). The closure also resulted in the forced layoff of over 300 Head Start staff. These tremendous cuts were layered on top of an earlier statewide loss of 700 Head Start seats for this school year due to sequestration — a series of automatic spending cuts made by Congress.
Temporary relief came late last night in the form of a $10 million personal donation to the National Head Start Association (NHSA) from Laura and John Arnold, a Houston-based hedge fund manager and his wife. (NHSA has said the programs intend on fully repaying the donation as a loan if and when government funding resumes.) The funding will be distributed to six states, including Connecticut, to reopen the Head Start sites closed as a result of the shutdown. As of this morning it is unclear how soon the Bridgeport programs will be able to resume providing services. Currently, the Connecticut Food Bank is helping by providing meals to children who are usually served in Head Start. Representative Rosa DeLauro heralded the announcement of the Arnolds’ donation as great news, but acknowledged “…relying on generous donors is no way to keep our country on the right path.” Connecticut’s Head Start Programs face future uncertainty, as programs in Waterbury, Winsted, New Milford, Stamford, Torrington, and Naugatuck could experience similar closures if the shutdown continues past November 1. Only an end to the federal government shutdown and a restoration of Head Start funding can ensure that the state’s most vulnerable children remain in school and that their parents can return to work.