Sunday, November 23rd, 2014
Half-True
Castor
"70,000 three-year-olds and four-year-olds across America will lose access to the preschool Head Start program. ... 2,000 in the state of Florida alone."

Kathy Castor on Monday, May 6th, 2013 in a TV interview

Kathy Castor says 70,000 children will lose access to Head Start including 2,000 in Florida

Faced with complaints about airport delays, members  of Congress (who happen to be frequent fliers) took action to halt sequester-related furloughs for air traffic controllers.

Some Democrats want to know why other groups aren’t getting similar relief from the sequester.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, railed against cuts to Head Start on MSNBC’s Hardball. Host Chris Matthews said Head Start "faces a $406 million cut, which would kick 70,000 kids out of the program."

Castor responded: "70,000 three-year-olds and four-year-olds across America will lose access to the preschool Head Start classroom. Now Head Start is intended for students who don’t have every advantage in life to ensure that they are ready for elementary school. It’s also important because it ensures that their parents are ready to work. (That’s) 70,000 students across America and 2,000 in the state of Florida alone because the Republicans refuse to replace the sequester or sit down with us to negotiate a balanced plan."

Castor only mentioned Head Start and provided specific numbers. Two months into the sequester, we wondered what evidence supports the claim that 70,000 preschoolers will lose access to Head Start. We were especially interested whether it would be 2,000 in Florida.

Head Start sequester

Head Start is an early education program that aims to increase kids’ "school readiness" with whole or half-day programs. Head Start serves more than 1 million kids a year. The program offers contracts to local providers, so sometimes multiple groups will offer Head Start programs, even within a single county. That's why claims about the program are estimates, because decisions about how many children to enroll are made on the local level.

Before the sequester, Head Start enrollment was at record highs because the Obama administration nearly doubled the number of children enrolled in Early Head Start through the economic stimulus, leading to a dramatic rise between 2009 and 2010. Congress decided to spend more money on Head Start in the next two years to keep enrollment at that level.

A month before the sequester took effect, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote in a Feb. 1 letter that "up to 70,000 children" would lose access to Head Start and Early Head Start. The White House released estimates that stated Head Start would be eliminated for 2,700 Florida children. (Castor's office pointed us to federal estimates as evidence for her claim.)

The 70,000 estimate hasn’t changed, HHS spokesman Ted Froats told PolitiFact Florida. The agency came up with the number through a formula based on appropriations, past levels of children served and the cost to serve a child. The number is not based on responses from programs about how they will handle the cut -- or have already. The federal Office of Head Start is collecting information on how programs are handling the cuts and expects to have that data in June.

"We do know that many programs have closed services early for this year and others have begun reducing the number of children served," Froats said in an email.

Programs were notified of their 5.27 percent budget cut in late April, and many are still determining how to implement the cut, according to the National Head Start Association. (For months they had been expecting around a 5 percent cut.)

We read multiple media reports about Head Start; many stories reference predictions of lost spots, repeating the federal government’s pre-sequester estimates. Some programs found ways to maintain enrollment, such as by reducing teacher in-service days.

The New York Times cited a few examples of the various impacts: In Colorado Springs, children decorated chairs to sell at $500 apiece; so far the fundraiser had saved two seats. Meanwhile a Head Start program in the Maine community of Pejepscot is being closed, as are programs in two Texas towns.

We should explain that losing "access" can also mean anywhere from closing one day a month to switching from a full year program to nine months. Many programs are offering spots to fewer new children next school year.

We checked in with some Head Start programs around the state of Florida. Here’s what we found:

Broward County: The program run through the Broward school district will not reduce enrollment. Broward plans to cut nine staff positions -- mostly retirements, plus two will get laid off -- and shorten Early Head start from 11 months a year to 10 months to achieve cuts of about $1 million. About 2,100 children attend the programs. Matching funds from the school district are helping Broward avoid cutting services to children.

"We are not cutting any seats," said Broward head start coordinator Claudia Dean.

Miami-Dade County: More than 7,000 students are served by the program. County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’ proposed fiscal year 2013-14 budget includes an additional $2.9 million for Head Start to offset the federal reduction. The investment will allow the county to maintain the number of children served by the program.  

Hillsborough County: The Hillsborough County School District, the county’s largest Head Start provider,  has so far avoided cutting spots by holding off on building two covered play areas and canceling field trips.

But it will reduce the number of children it serves by 40 in its next budget, district spokesman Steve Hegarty told PolitiFact Florida. "That will require five fewer staffers," he said.

The district will lose $551,000 from sequestration in its current budget, and it expects to lose more in the new one that begins in October.

The county, which oversees the federal grant, dealt with budget cuts by cutting vacant positions and training, said Maria Mason, deputy director of program operations for the county's Head Start/Early Head Start program. The county is still assessing how a $1.4 million cut will affect its 2013-14 budget, but Mason is certain it will result in fewer slots for kids and lotteries to determine who gets access.

"We don't have any true numbers at this point," she said.

Lutheran Services Florida also works as a subcontractor for Hillsborough County’s Early Head Start program. It serves 120 kids but will eliminate eight spots next year.

Hernando, Sumter and Volusia counties: The staff agreed to forgo contributions to retirement accounts, eliminate staff training and reduce cleaning services to avoid reducing services this year, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Next year, the number of children accepted will drop by about 50. One program in Seville will close two weeks early, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Palm Beach County: The Head Start program in Belle Glade, a city within Palm Beach County, plans to cut up to 30 spots for the 2013-14 year, according to David Yarborough, a vice president for Lutheran Services Florida. The Palm Beach Post reported that bus service would end for hundreds of children in Head Start in Palm Beach.

Pinellas County: Lutheran Services Florida will soon take over Pinellas County’s Head Start grant, but Yarborough said he didn’t yet know how it will handle the cuts there.

Our ruling

Castor said, "70,000 three-year-olds and four-year-olds across America will lose access to the preschool Head Start program. … 2,000 in the state of Florida alone."

Castor omitted that important qualifier "up to" 70,000 children that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provided in February. Her Florida figure comes from the White House (2,700 for Florida) and the National Head Start Association (2,000).

HHS hopes to provide data in June that will show how many spots for Head Start are actually being cut based on reporting by the programs. Until federal officials share that data, it is difficult to come up with an accurate nationwide number based on anecdotal evidence in news articles.

Also, Castor used a vague term by saying the children will lose "access." Access could mean a number of things, from scaling back weeks of operation, removing bus service, or cutting enrolled kids. News reports show many programs are finding ways to completely avoid or at least reduce the number of affected children by cutting other parts of the program, such as staff retirement funds and cleaning services, and holding fundraisers.

We rate this claim Half True.