Our leaders often peddle the role of family. Yet with the specter of a federal government shutdown, Washington has put our most vulnerable citizens on life support. While the White House expands preschool, Washington shrinks Head Start. California's poorest kids deserve better.
A brain child of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, Head Start has served more than 30 million low-income preschool children since 1965. Head Start cuts, which will trim the number of slots by about 7 percent, will do damage. The Children's Institute's Richard Cohen of Los Angeles County - home to the nation's largest Head Start provider - explains, "The last four years have been devastating for poor families. Sequestration comes on top of these (other program) losses." Now more than 11,900 California infants, toddlers and preschoolers, out of about 70,000 nationally, soon will be without Head Start. The United States already ranks 28th out of 38 developed countries in early education.
The sequester was supposed to be a doomsday scenario that would incite congressional action to make thoughtful cuts. Yet, instead of a Washington compromise, California's at-risk children now may be hit with a permanent "time-out" from success. Our most underserved kids will have less chance of attending college, finding a solid job and becoming responsible citizens.
Head Start critics don't mind the cuts. A recently released Head Start Impact Study found that many of the program's gains disappear after a child completes first grade. Thus, critics argue, Head Start is not improving a poor child's school readiness.
Yet, other studies reveal something else: Head Start kids can show improvements into grade school. The Perry Preschool and the Carolina Abecedarian projects both illustrated the benefits of early childhood education. High-quality preschool delivered large social and economic gains. Perry kids earn more money as adults and follow the law. They developed self-discipline and citizenship skills.
Head Start, the federal education aid program modeled on the goals of the 1962 Perry Preschool Project, doesn't simply help children. It saves taxpayers money. In answer to critics, the government has enacted reforms. Low-performing Head Start programs now must compete for federal funding. President Obama plans to expand Early Head Start alongside expanding preschool for 4-year- olds. Of course, sustaining early childhood academic-performance gains requires a commitment to improving K-12 education in poor neighborhoods - a tall order.
California, like the United States, is blessed with immense wealth. Unfortunately, devastating inequality among Californians takes its toll. Head Start funding cuts follow a series of body blows to low-income families. State budgets are reeling. Without federal support, our kids will struggle.
In the name of deficit reduction, we cannot deprive Californians a chance to do well simply because they were born in rough parts of Los Angeles, Bakersfield or Richmond. Such austerity does not inspire economic growth. It saps our state's strength and weakens the American, indeed Californian, idea of social mobility. Reaching a deal on sequestration will happen. As we enter the next round of this budget bout, the responsibility to preserve access to early education lies with Congress. Who will rise?
Vijay Das is a graduate student at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. He has worked on gang violence and public health reforms for the mayors of Los Angeles and New York. This post originally appeared in the SF Chronicle.