Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Illinois Head Start programs remain open — for now

By Jamey Dunn

So far, most Illinois Head Start Programs have stayed open during the partial shutdown of the federal government, but that could change if the bickering in Congress drags on.

Head Start provides food, medical care and preschool to low-income children. The shutdown left more than 20 Head Start programs serving 19,000 kids nationwide in the lurch because they were set to start their fiscal years and receive grant money on October 1. Some states have stepped in with funding to keep the doors open at Head Start centers. Today, John and Laura Arnold, a wealthy Texas couple, announced that they donated $10 million to help the programs that did not receive federal funds. When federal funding is restored, those agencies plan to repay the Arnolds.

Entities that administer Head Start have different fiscal-year starts for the program because they must submit grant applications and information to obtain their funding each year. Lauri Morrison-Frichtl, executive director of the Illinois Head Start Association, said that if all programs submitted their renewal information at once, it would overwhelm staff responsible for reviewing the applications. “They couldn’t handle all of our Head Start programs at the same time.” No Illinois Head Start centers start their fiscal year on October 1. However, Morrison-Frichtl said that two Head Start operations in the state had trouble getting their funding after the shutdown. Two Rivers Head Start Agency, which serves the Aurora area, was shut down for one day this week but has since reopened after the problems with funding were cleared up. East Central Community Action Agency’s Head Start program also had issues with funds but did not close. “There wasn’t enough staff in [Washington] D.C. to man the system, and so when people were having trouble, there wasn’t anyone there to figure out what was going on.” If the shutdown continues into November, she said that two programs — CEFS Economic Opportunities Corp. in Effingham and Project NOW in East Moline — would see their federal funds cut off. The two organizations serve a combined total of 10 counties and more than 860 children.

This fiscal uncertainty comes after Head Start funding was cut by a little more than 5 percent in March under automatic federal spending reductions known as sequestration. In Illinois 1,700 children were booted from Head Start. “The majority of our programs across the state cut kids,” said Morrison-Frichtl. “There’s huge waiting lists.” And she says as poverty has grown in the state, “the demand is more than ever.” Head Start programs in Illinois have also cut staff hours and benefits, reduced transportation and field trips for kids and cut back on supplies. Morrison-Frichtl said she recently lobbied the Illinois congressional delegation to restore some of the funding cut by the sequester. “I truly believe in a balanced budget. But I also know the way we value and prioritize our spending is important,” she said. “When children — the only meal they get during the day is at Head Start, and they wake up in the morning and are hungry when they come back to school — that should be the priority. ... They deserve a good start before they hit the public school system.” But she said the current political climate does not make her optimistic about having some of the money put back.

 Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn’s office announced that 53 Department of Military Affairs employees and 20 Department of Employment Security employees have returned to work. That means that only 23 federally funded state employees are currently laid off. However, Quinn’s office says that more layoffs could come as the shutdown continues.

Quinn wrote a letter to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and members of the Illinois congressional delegation urging them to end the shutdown. “We need to end the shutdown now. This is not good for our economy. It’s not good for Illinois. It’s not good for any state in the union,” Quinn told reporters earlier this week. “We need some common sense in Washington to end this nonsense.”


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