The largest federal funding cut in the 47-year history of the local Head Start program means 118 fewer children from low-income families will be provided services to help them get ready to learn in school.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services granted $6,350,032 to Enrichment Services Program Inc. to support healthy prenatal outcomes, enhance the development of infants, toddlers and preschoolers, and promote healthy family functioning. That is 5.2 percent less than last year's grant, and it prompted ESP to lay off 36 of its 220 Head Start employees at 10 locations.
Belva Dorsey, the chief executive officer of ESP, said the grant will help serve 887 children in Head Start (ages 3-5) and Early Head Start (infants and toddlers) during the 2013-14 school year. Overall federal budget cuts called sequestration, however, mean the money isn't enough -- and the waiting list for the free program has grown to 600.
"We can celebrate that we can still serve vulnerable families," Dorsey said, "but, on the flip side, I have families calling who have a need and we can't serve them. That's hard. That tugs at our heart."
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The only option, Dorsey said, is to refer those families to private child development programs, where they might qualify for a state subsidy from Childcare and Parent Services to help pay for the fees.
Also frustrating Dorsey is knowing this cut comes after ESP served its most children this past year: 1,005.
"A lot of families are unable to afford to pay $6,000 a year for early care," Dorsey said. "Head Start allows parents to go back to work and have more income or to go back to school and take care of their basic needs."
ESP services are available to residents within an eight-county area of the lower Chattahoochee Valley, comprising Muscogee, Harris, Chattahoochee, Clay, Quitman, Randolph, Stewart and Talbot counties.
Overall, HHS awarded $6.461 billion in Head Start grants for this school year to agencies across the nation through the department's Office of the Administration for Children and Families.
U.S. Rep. Sandord Bishop, D-Albany, a local congressman, commended HHS and Head Start for their continued to commitment, but he also said in a news release "sequestration's ripple effect throughout our communities negatively impacts education, job training and many other services Georgians rely on every day beyond what any grant may support. As a strong and sustainable educational foundation is vital in strengthening our nation's economy, I will continue to urge Congress to adopt a balanced solution to end this unwise and destructive policy."