Congress can't get its act together, and it's Florida's families and youth who have to pay.
As a direct result of our representatives playing politics in Washington over the federal budget, some of our youngest Floridians have been kicked out of Head Start programs. This year, more than 1,200 children in Florida have lost access to this critical early childhood education program. We cannot remain silent while our lawmakers cut programs that invest in Florida's greatest resource: kids.
The Redlands Christian Migrant Association is the largest nonprofit child care provider in Florida, operating 70 child care centers, most of which are in poor rural communities. Primary funding for 33 of our centers comes from federal grants to the Migrant Head Start program to serve the children of migrant farmworkers. Another 27 Head Start centers serve other low-income rural families, many of them former farmworkers. Sequestration cut more than 5 percent from Head Start's budget — mandatory, arbitrary budget cuts that Congress allowed to happen because it couldn't agree on a plan. Consequently, we have been forced to make choices that hurt our children and our communities.
We have permanently closed Head Start centers in Ocala, Palatka and Pahokee. We were also forced to close all of our migrant centers two weeks early before summer and are delaying opening three centers that usually open in October. In addition, we have been forced to reduce services in other communities, such as cutting back on the hours we can serve children. With fewer classrooms and kids to serve, we of course need fewer staffers. This affects the communities our staff members live in, and businesses are feeling the pain. Over the past year, RCMA has had to lay off dozens of hardworking employees — people who did not deserve to get fired.
But there is more to this story than statistics.
In Wauchula, we shrank the hours for many children from a full day to a half-day at our Fred Dennis center. Sky, a child with Down syndrome, was affected. His mother, a dental hygienist at the local health department, has been unable to obtain care elsewhere and is in jeopardy of losing her job. In Bowling Green, the mother of a severely disabled 4-year-old has abandoned the fields — and her income — after losing RCMA child care in the afternoons.
We worry greatly about the children who are not getting child care now. Brain development lags in young children when they live in poverty. At RCMA, our trained teachers play with these disadvantaged children and stimulate their minds to help them prepare to learn in school. This coming year, there will be 200 fewer children in our centers. We wonder what these kids are doing without Head Start — watching TV? And who is taking care of them while Mom and Dad are at work?
At RCMA, we know that programs that invest in our children are an investment in Florida's future. Reports abound on the value of investing in early childhood education. Our priority is to ensure that disadvantaged children start on the right path, but it becomes nearly impossible to do so when Congress doesn't share those same priorities. Talk about penny wise and pound foolish! Watch how the costs of remedial education in our schools will go up.
We need Congress to stand behind our families and restore funding to Head Start and all early childhood programs. There is still time for our elected representatives to do the right thing — and the smart thing.
Barbara Mainster is executive director of Redlands Christian Migrant Association, the largest nonprofit child care provider in Florida. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.