TOPEKA, Ks. – Early Head Start provides child care and education for infants and toddlers in low-income families. It currently serves more than twelve hundred children in fifty counties across Kansas, but it's been targeted for elimination by Governor Sam Brownback.
Last fall, facing a projected budget deficit of half a billion dollars, then-Governor Mark Parkinson asked all state agencies to include in their 2012 budget requests an option for how they would implement a five per cent budget cut. The Secretary of SRS at the time, Don Jordan, citing the need to preserve services to those who are most vulnerable, proposed eliminating the Kansas Early Head Start program.
Mary Baskett, who directs the Kansas Head Start Association, never thought that scenario would actually be included in the new governor's budget recommendation. She was wrong.
"We have been told that the governor's office did not understand the impact of what that cut meant," Baskett says. "And really bottom line, we believe it was a misunderstanding of the nature of our program compared to the child care assistance that was included in the budget."
Baskett says child care assistance is important, but it's nowhere near as valuable as the services Early Head Start provides.
"In Early Head Start, they're getting a full range of early childhood development, health, nutrition, oral health," Basket says. "The parents are getting a weekly 90 minute home visit. It's just totally not comparable."
If the program is eliminated, says Baskett, 1,250 young children and their families living at or below the poverty level would lose services. Baskett remains optimistic that this scenario will not come to pass.
"We have been told that the governor's office will be developing a budget amendment and that Kansas Head Start will be put into the budget," Baskett says.
But that's not the message being delivered by the governor's press secretary Sherienne Jones-Sontag, who says she's not aware of a plan by the governor's office to restore that money.
"Whether an amendment is made to put the money back in will be up to the Kansas Legislature," says Jones-Sontage. "There were a number of difficult budget decisions made in preparing this fiscal year 2012 budget. The governor faced a $550 million budget deficit while also seeing increases to fixed costs going up for the state."
Shannon Cotsoradis heads the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children.
"Every conversation we've had with the governor's team suggests they are committed to preserving the head start program," says Cotsoradis.
Cotsoradis says the new Secretary of SRS said as much in his recent testimony to the House Appropriations Committee.
"And as part of that communication, he indicated that the governor's policy director was working on addressing this situation with Early Head Start," Cotsoradis says.
Eliminating Early Head Start would save $11 million dollars. At the same time, the governor's budget proposal allocates $6 million for a new literacy program called Reading Roadmap.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Jean Schodorf isn't convinced that would be a good trade.
"Any time you have a budget crisis where we're trying to cut millions and millions of dollars, I don't know how wise it is to start brand new programs," Schodorf says. "It's usually cheaper to keep programs in place or tighten up those programs when they essentially do the same thing."
Schodorf worries that the Reading Roadmap program would not reach as many kids in as many locations as Early Head Start.
"It's not in every town, but it is all across the state," Schodorf says. "And I think it's very important for rural areas or smaller communities to have access to programs like this, especially for children of lower income levels."
Still, coming up with $11 million for Early Head Start at a time when lawmakers need to close a half billion dollar budget gap is a tall order especially with the governor and legislative leaders adamant about avoiding tax increases.
It's all very worrisome to child care providers like Elaine Edwards. She operates Salina Child Care, which serves about seventy children.
"Right now today in our program, we have twenty children that are funded through Kansas Early Head Start," says Edwards. "And the way the budget proposal reads now, those children would no longer receive services."
Edwards says even if these low-income families are able to find other child care, it likely wouldn't provide the intensive early education and socialization skills provided by Early Head Start. She says the state may save money in the short term.
"[But] We're probably going to end up spending more dollars on them in the future with special education services because they just weren't ready to be in that classroom," says Edwards.
A coalition of early education groups will be driving that message home to lawmakers this session.