CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Around 380 families will lose Head Start services as a result of the national sequester, but West Virginia's 4-year-olds won't likely lose preschool classes.
That's because of West Virginia's newly expanded universal preschool program — there has been state-funded preschool in every county for more than a decade, and last fall lawmakers approved legislation mandating that all 4-year-olds are given the option to attend every day, not just a full-day program.
That's a happy coincidence for education officials who have watched funding for Head Start — the national program that provides preschool and other services to low-income families — dry up with the sequester, the automatic spending cuts enacted last year after a Congressional budget deadlock.
Clayton Burch, executive director for the state Department of Education's Office of Early Learning, explained this to lawmakers Tuesday at a meeting of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability, reassuring them that students wouldn't be missing out on preschool because of the sequester.
But about 380 will lose access to the services that accompany Head Start's preschool program — like health and nutrition services — which are a cornerstone of the program for low-income families.
"I do still have a concern over the overall cuts and what it means for families," Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale said.
A few counties are working on developing programs that could help close the gap for low-income families, Burch said, though those are still in their early stages. Until then, the state Department of Education has appealed to county school systems to pay special attention to the children who have lost services as a result of budget cuts, to see if there are other ways to serve their needs beyond preschool.
West Virginia's universal preschool program has shown steady growth since it was launched in 2002. In 2011-2012, all but three counties — Berkely, Jefferson and Upshur — boasted participation rates greater than 60 percent.
Officials expect those numbers to grow with the implementation of full-day preschool in all counties — the idea is to make it easier for kids to enroll in the programs.
Experts estimate that state preschool programs reach peak enrollment when about 80 percent of the eligible population is enrolled (around 20 percent of children are bound to end up in private programs, or have parents who don't approve of preschool) and state officials aspire to that benchmark.
West Virginia's universal preschool program has garnered praise from national preschool advocates in the past and Jim Phares, State Superintendent of Schools, said it's on track to be counted even more successful.
Right now, West Virginia's program meets eight of the 10 benchmarks set by the National Institute for Early Education Research, the authority on pre-k nationally. With the passage of education reform legislation this fall raising the standards for preschool teachers, West Virginia is on track to meet the remaining two benchmarks this year.
Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.ma...@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.