Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

How many kids have been cut from Head Start?

A child at a Head Start program in Hernando County, Florida, plays on a swing. The programs are facing cuts under the sequester. (Tampa Bay Times photo)
A child at a Head Start program in Hernando County, Florida, plays on a swing. The programs are facing cuts under the sequester. (Tampa Bay Times photo)

They’re some of the youngest victims of the sequester: children who have lost a spot in Head Start.

Head Start’s aim is to prepare preschoolers and their families for kindergarten. For kids, that can include learning to recognize ABCs, answering questions about a story, and identifying shapes. Meanwhile, Head Start staff makes sure the children have access to nutrition and health screenings and that their families are involved.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that "up to 70,000 children" would lose access to Head Start and Early Head Start programs because of the sequester. Earlier this year, we fact-checked several politicians made statements based on that number; the accuracy varied depending on how they worded it.

In May, for example, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., said "70,000 three-year-olds and four-year-olds across America will lose access to the preschool Head Start classroom" including 2,000 in Florida. We rated her claim Half True. Castor omitted that important qualifier "up to" 70,000 children, and at the time it was difficult to come up with an accurate nationwide number based on anecdotal evidence.

About a week later, U.S. Sen Mark Warner, D-Va., made a similar claim but suggested  children had already lost positions in the program: "What’s not visible is the 70,000 kids who have lost their Head Start slots..." PolitiFact Virginia rated his claim Mostly False.

Head Start programs, which serve about one million children a year, get federal funding but are run by a variety of local agencies nationwide, which means that it took months for federal officials to gather data on how individual programs were responding to the cuts.

This summer, Head Start programs nationwide reported to the federal Office of Head Start how they planned to incorporate the 5-percent budget cut from the sequester. The combined answer was released by HHS on Aug. 19, 2013. It showed 57,265 children will not be enrolled in Head Start during the 2013-14 school year.

Castor's state, Florida, is reducing spots by 1,205 during the 2013-14 school year. Several states are reducing more spots than Florida, including Texas, 4,410; Ohio; 2,782; Georgia, 1,750. Warner’s state, Virginia, is reducing spots by 1,189.

At PolitiFact, we rate politicians’ claims based on available information at the time. So this article based on new information does not change our previous ratings. To be clear, though, 70,000 children have not lost Head Start. The more accurate number turns out to be 57,265 expected during the year.

A spokesman with HHS told us some of the reductions have happened through attrition.

"This includes both children being ‘kicked out’ and children who graduated not being replaced by new applicants," HHS spokesman Ted Froats told PolitiFact. "It’s important to note that children in Head Start have to reapply for services each year.  In that sense, they’re not technically being ‘kicked out.’  They’re just not being accepted back into the program. Of course, the difference is just words. The result is the same."

The Head Start programs also reported that they would offer 1.3 million fewer days of service (opening later in the school year or closing earlier) and 18,000 fewer hours of service (opening later in the day or closing earlier).  Also, at least 18,000 staff members were affected through pay cuts or job loss.

Some Head Start programs have avoided cutting spots by trimming expenses, such as supplies, or reducing hours.  

PolitiFact Florida checked in with a few counties in their state in August to ask how many spots they plan to cut.

Miami-Dade County did not expect to cut the number of children served by Head Start. However, the county budget has gone through a few revisions this summer and won’t be finalized until next month.

Broward County will not reduce enrollment.

"We’ve cut materials, supplies, meals for meetings, every little area we could cut so we could save some seats," said Claudia Dean, Broward head start coordinator.

But unrelated to the sequester, Broward’s program which serves about 2,100 has a waiting list of 4,000.

"The need here is immense in Broward County," Dean said. "We wish we could open up more seats. It's a shame this (sequester) has also happened."

A spokesman for the Hillsborough County School District told PolitiFact Florida in May that it will reduce the number of children it serves by 40 in its next budget. District spokesman Steve Hegarty said in early August that the plan remained the same.

Lutheran Services Florida also works as a subcontractor for Hillsborough County’s Early Head Start program and serves about 120 students. The program will probably eliminate eight spots. Lutheran Services anticipates no reduction for spots for it’s program in Pinellas or in Belle Glade, a city within Palm Beach County. (In May, Lutheran Services anticipated cutting spots in Belle Glade but cut administration instead.)

Palm Beach County eliminated buses but said that they didn’t eliminate spots and their enrollment didn’t change.

Spot a claim worth fact-checking about the sequester or any other topic? Send us ideas at #PolitifactThis on Twitter or truthometer@politifact.com