WASHINGTON – The honorary 25 millionth child registered in a Head Start program played with crayons and ducked under the table Wednesday while officials sang the praises of the program.
The National Head Start Association recognized 4-year-old Cynthia Martinez-Cardoso of Washington with the distinction at a news conference.
Cynthia was born with a genetic disorder causing developmental delays and hearing loss,said Almeta Keys,one of her teachers and executive director of the Edward C. Mazique Parent Child Center.
After Cynthia completed the program,Keys said Cynthia enrolled with the D.C. Public Schools to receive auditory and oral services.
“Cynthia now tells her mother that she might consider a run for public office one day,” Keys said.
In 43 years,25 million children and their families have received a comprehensive preschool education and services such as health care through Head Start,but officials say the federal government's school readiness program continues to struggle with limited funding and additional mandates.
“It's a true success story for the federal government and for our nation in terms of creating opportunity and hope,” said Ron Herndon,chairman of the association's board.
When Congress reauthorized Head Start in 2007,Herndon said it added additional stipulations,such as requiring that half of the teachers have bachelor's degrees.
But the program's $6.8 billion budget has not changed to fund these mandates or keep up with inflation,said Helen Blank,director of public policy at the National Women's Law Center.
Last year,$11 million was cut from Head Start's funding when Congress cut funding across the board,and with inflation,it has lost 11 percent since 2002,she said.
“Congress made a big effort to look for some increase,” Blank said. “It was stuck in this horrific budget process.”
Edward Zigler,a psychology professor at Yale University and a founder of Head Start,said the program is the only one that provides broad services,from health care to meals,for children and their families.
Instead of focusing on test scores to determine school readiness,Zigler said people should also focus on the program's overall success.
“I was on board when the number of participants was zero,” Zigler said. “Head Start was the first and only program that has what we have.”
For Head Start to continue providing the same services,many programs have already cut corners and others will have to,said Danielle Ewen,director of childhood and early education policy at the Center on Law and Social Policy.
Faced with rising food and fuel costs,Ewen said some state programs are cutting employees,using powdered milk instead of real milk or only opening four days a week to save on energy costs.
“If you're a parent who works and depends on Head Start for your childcare,what are you going to do on that fifth day?” Ewen said.
When Congress looks for places to trim the budget,she said social programs are often first on the chopping block and the last to receive increases.
Most politicians agree on the success of Head Start but not how to fund it,Ewen said.
This year,Head Start looked like it might be an “anomaly program” that receives an increase for 2009,but Ewen said that is doubtful. Congress is expected to vote on the 2009 budget this week.
“It is clearly one of the programs that desperately need help,” Ewen said. “When the economy goes into a decline,it continues to provide what those families need.”