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House funding bill to cut Washington child care services

Columbian - 11/16/2023

Nov. 15—The U.S. House of Representatives is weighing a funding bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education that may cut key early learning services to over a thousand children in Washington next year.

Joel Ryan, the executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, said that HR 5894's initial proposal features a 6.25 percent cut to Head Start programs nationwide and would discontinue services for 1,400 children statewide. As of today, the bill was left as unfinished business to be addressed after the Thanksgiving break.

Head Start programs provide critical early-learning intervention services, housing resources, meals and more to at-risk children and their families.

"Head Start providers we have spoken (with) over the past couple of weeks have shared with us that we are likely to see entire classrooms eliminated and teaching staff laid off," Ryan shared in a release before the vote earlier this week. "This is on top of the already ongoing struggles Head Start grantees are facing to hire and retain staff at existing funding levels."

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Head Start providers in Southwest Washington said they've experienced an uptick in families in need of their services but have remained without the necessary funding to expand accordingly. In turn, they struggle with high staff turnover and high class sizes.

These proposed cuts, leaders said, will only make things worse.

"When you talk about working with a skeleton budget, we are bare bones and there's no meat left to cut," said Rekah Strong, the director of Educational Opportunities for Children and Families, an organization that provides Head Start services across Southwest Washington. "These cuts are just another dig as we struggle to retain staff and pay them a decent wage. It has implications for not only the families we serve, but our community as a whole."

Facing local reductions

Strong estimates the cuts would force her organization to remove services for 35 to 40 children in Clark County. A study completed earlier this year found that the population of children eligible for Head Start services in Southwest Washington is continuing to rise, especially among low-income communities and communities of color.

"This is a child care desert," Strong said. "There's already 4,000 kids we need to serve but can't."

The cuts could also force over a dozen local Head Start staffers to lose their jobs, but Strong said it's her goal to prevent any layoffs. On Tuesday, Strong said she began initial conversations with staff members about potential restructuring to account for the budget reduction.

"I don't want to alarm people just yet, we're tremendously protective of our workforce," she said. "What we'll probably do is just keep vacant positions unfilled, focusing on natural attrition. We aren't looking at laying people off from the agency."

In the coming weeks, Strong, Ryan and other early learning leaders say they will continue to press legislators to advocate for amendments to the bill that reduce the impact on Head Start programs.

"This is a call to action to make sure (our legislators) are reaching out to their colleagues and really making the case for the importance of the work we do," Strong said. "We learned a lesson from the pandemic that when child care wasn't in existence, businesses lose, too."

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