Mary Baskett said she can’t believe it.
There’s nothing in Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposed budget for the 16 Early Head Start programs, which have operations in 56 of Kansas’ 105 counties, including in rural areas where services for young, at-risk children are otherwise sparse or non-existent.
“When I heard that I was shocked,” said Baskett, executive director of the Kansas Head Start Association.
Early Head Start provides services for infants and toddlers up to age 3. Low-income pregnant women also are eligible and receive services such as training in parenting skills.
The “vast majority” of the parents whose children are enrolled in Early Head Start, Baskett said, are either working or in school. Almost all of them are in households at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, or $1,226 a month for a mother with one child.
“The exception is that 10 percent of slots are set aside for children with disabilities and they don’t have to be under 100 percent of poverty,” Baskett said. “But, again, most of them are.”
Pre-kindergarteners between ages 3 and 5 are eligible for the regular Head Start program.
Many Head Start and Early Head Start programs have waiting lists.
The Brownback budget plan also would eliminate the state’s Family Centered System of Care grant program that community mental health centers use to pay for services for mentally ill children who are low-income, uninsured and not eligible for Medicaid.
Family Centered System of Care currently receives almost $5 million a year from the Children’s Initiative Fund, which also puts $3.5 million into Early Head Start.
A new program
Brownback has proposed eliminating Early Head Start’s $11.3 million budget, using some of the money to put an additional $3.1 million into the $79 million child-care assistance program at the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
The governor also has called for spending $6 million on Reading Roadmap, a new program that according to budget documents would target “...school districts with the long-term goal of improving fourth grade reading scores.”
Though not yet defined, Reading Roadmap programs are expected to focus on low-income students.
Both proposals are in keeping with Brownback’s campaign promises to raise fourth grade reading levels and fight childhood poverty.
“What I’ve been told is that by moving money out of early Head Start and into child-care assistance, a number of families will have access to child-care benefits that, hopefully, will free the parents up for employment,” said Rep. David Crum, an Augusta Republican and chairman of the House Social Services Budget Committee. “The governor’s goal is to get people back to work.”
But fans of Early Head Start are questioning the absence of continued funding for the popular program, which, they say, is already doing what Brownback has proposed.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat, is among those worried about the Brownback budget plan.
“I’m quite upset over what the governor is proposing,” Ballard said. “I’m looking at the budget and I see Early Head Start, a program we’ve worked on for years and that’s been proven to be very effective, being zeroed out and then I see Reading Roadmap, a program none of us know anything about, going from zero to $6 million.”
The governor’s proposal, she said, appeared to be ill-conceived.
“What is Reading Roadmap?” Ballard asked during a recent meeting of the social services budget committee.
No one in the room answered.
SRS spokesman Bill Miskell, in an interview with KHI News Service last week, said Reading Roadmap would be administered by SRS and is likely to also involve school districts across the state.
“The details are still being worked out,” he said. “(The program) is still being developed.”
It not yet known which or how many school districts will be targeted, Miskell said.
Budget documents show that eliminating Early Head Start would cut services to 1,177 children.
Expanding the child-care assistance program would benefit 850 children, which on paper equals 327 fewer children being served than in the current budget.
“What the governor's office doesn’t understand, I think, is that probably 70 percent of our (Early Head Start) funding goes to child care, so that parents can go to work,” Baskett said.
Much of the money, she said, is distributed to local child-care providers who otherwise might not be able to offers services at all, which means they also are there as a resource for parents whose children aren’t in Early Head Start.
“That funding has allowed child care providers in many communities — those who serve infants and toddlers — to be able to stay in business,” Baskett said. “It’s also improved the quality of care because to be eligible, providers are required to meet a very high standard.”
Under SRS’ child care assistance program, Baskett said, providers are merely expected to meet basic health and safety standards.
”I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing or that there might not be more going on — there may well be,” Baskett said. “But it (SRS-supported child care) is certainly not designed to be anything comparable to what we have in Early Head Start.”
Currently, the SRS child-care assistance program, on average, subsidizes care for 20,500 children each month.
Parents are eligible for child-care assistance if their incomes are below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $2,268 a month for a single mother with one child.
Earlier this month, child advocates welcomed Brownback’s pledge to improve fourth grade reading levels and combat childhood poverty. Now, they say they’re confused.
“Eliminating Early Head Start certainly flies in the face of what he said,” said Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive at Kansas Action for Children, a Topeka-based advocacy group. “Early Head Start is the gold standard when it comes to early learning for our youngest, poorest children.”
“I really think there’s been a misunderstanding as to who’s served by Early Head Start and what those services are,” said Melissa Ness, a member of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet, which monitors and evaluates the state’s tobacco settlement-funded Children’s Initiative Fund.
“I say that because when I look at what the governor wants to do and at what Early Head Start is doing, they appear to be one and the same,” Ness said. “I may be wrong but I really don’t think this — the elimination of Early Heads Start — is what the governor intended to do. What we’re dealing with, I think, is some of the confusion that comes with any new administration.”
During a recent budget briefing, administration officials said SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki would be contacting Early Head Start advocates to discuss alternate sources of funding.
In an email to KHI News Service last week, Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag wrote:
“The governor understands the importance of preparing young Kansans for success in the classroom and will work with SRS and the early childhood development stakeholders to achieve the goals that we all share.”
In Kansas, most of the Early Head Start programs partner with the local school district or, in rural areas, with several school districts.
In Coffeyville, for example, Early Head Start, the area special education cooperative and the local school district have formed the Coffeyville Community Preschool Partnership.
“We’re in our second year, and I call tell you that for the first time, our (kindergarten) teachers are saying that they feel like the kids are coming to school prepared to learn,” said Robert Morton, school superintendent in Coffeyville.
“It’s doing much better than we thought it would. I say that because we face some pretty significant challenges here. Almost 75 percent of our students are ‘free and reduced,’” he said, referring to the school’s free or reduce-priced meal program.
Students are eligible for free lunches if they live in households below 130 percent of poverty. They’re eligible for reduced-price lunches if they’re between 130 and 185 percent of poverty.
Brownback also has proposed eliminating Coordinated School Health, a $470,000 grant program that schools use to promote physical activity, healthy eating habits and tobacco-use prevention.