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Cuts to Head Start program mourned during vigil

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Funding cuts to Head Start from the federal sequester are already in effect, but state education and family advocacy groups, along with politicians, are working to prevent another round of cuts.

A vigil Thursday in front of the Federal Building in downtown Charleston brought together these groups and others to remind community members that these cuts are in effect, and to launch a political campaign to lobby against more cuts.

A letter to that effect was introduced by Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale and initially joined by Delegates Don Perdue, Barbara Fleischauer and Meshea Poore.

Head Start, the federal program that puts children from low-income homes into preschool classrooms in the name of school readiness and provides them with a slew of other support programs, has been slashed nationally. That's because of the sequester — the automatic spending cuts agreed to last year after a Congressional deadlock on the budget.

West Virginia lost slots for 461 children with the 5.27 percent cut, according to the National Head Start Association, and 80 Head Start workers lost their jobs.

To paint the picture, officials rallied Thursday in front of 461 empty, child-size chairs — a visual reminder of the children who lost access to services this year.

"It's a picture for us, but it's a reality for other people," Poore told the assembled crowd, urging them to overlook politics as they considered what those chairs symbolized. "Our children do not have a party affiliation. They're children."  

The impact of the cuts is less severe in West Virginia than in many parts of the country. That's because of West Virginia's newly expanded universal preschool program. It's one of the few states that has had state-funded preschool in every county for more than a decade now, and last fall, lawmakers approved legislation mandating that all 4-year-olds be given the option to attend a full-day program, not just part-time.

But Head Start officials warn this doesn't mean children aren't being affected by the cuts: The low-income children who qualify for Head Start also benefit from a slew of health and family programs as well as services designed to make those benefits more accessible — like transportation. None of that will be available to children who are booted out of Head Start, even if they find a place in a state-funded preschool classroom.

Stephen Smith, director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, said county school systems are making efforts to accommodate the students who lost access to Head Start this year but warned that they won't be able to weather much more lost funding.

"When I think of the sequester, I think of it as a big, fat bully. It picks on the most vulnerable," he said. "And who does it pick on most? Our kids who are poor and disabled. That's what Head Start is."

For an answer, he pointed to two pieces of legislation that have already been introduced — one in the House of Representatives and another in the Senate.

"We need congressional action," he said, and he asked community members to lobby their lawmakers to support that legislation.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant called the funding cuts "unbelievable" and said she is doing what she can to lobby for legislation to prevent future cuts.

"I understand there are times we need to cut spending, but are we going to do it on the backs of our children?" she said. "When we talk about this, nobody likes it — Republicans don't like it, Democrats don't like it. But who's falling through the cracks? Our children."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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