Louise Marsden, who administers Cumberland County’s Head Start operation, said she could open six classrooms today from her wait list. She confronts a great need: last year half of 34 kids in one Portland classroom were homeless.
But state funding for Head Start has recently become a political football. Republican governor Paul LePage’s administration wants to end it. Its future will depend on negotiations among legislative Democrats and Republicans and LePage, who can be a lone wolf on budget issues.
Since its founding in 1965, Head Start, the well-regarded national preschool program with, currently, 220 classrooms serving 4,400 kids from low-income Maine families, has been underfunded compared with the need.
The program currently serves 48 percent of three- and four-year-olds whose families qualify (as well as some five-year-olds not yet in kindergarten), and it serves only 11 percent of Maine kids who qualify for Early Head Start, according to Maine Head Start Directors Association lobbyist Rick McCarthy. Early Head Start is an offshoot established in the 1990s for infants, toddlers, and pregnant women in low-income families. A two-person family qualifies for either program if its annual income is $15,510 or less.
In 2012, when Republicans controlled the Legislature, they slashed Head Start’s appropriation from an annual $2.4 million to $444,000. As a result, more than 200 Maine kids couldn’t be served, McCarthy said. Marsden had to close two classrooms.
A “double whammy occurred,” she said, when in 2013 federal funds shrank because of the so-called “sequester.” Marsden had to shut another two classrooms. The feds provide the bulk of Head Start funds — $32 million annually in Maine before the sequestration, which brought about a $1.6-million reduction, requiring 22 classrooms to be closed throughout the state.
Last spring, after the Democrats retook the Legislature, $1.3 million in state funds was restored for the current fiscal year in the budget passed over LePage’s veto, but the money was limited to Early Head Start.
A bill currently under legislative consideration, LD 1682, would restore $2 million to the state contribution, for both Early and regular Head Start. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” said Marsden, who as a child in Aroostook County was in the first national Head Start class.
A promising sign for LD 1682’s passage should be that both House Democratic majority leader Seth Berry and Republican minority leader Kenneth Fredette are cosponsors. But when queried about his support, Fredette issued this less-than-enthusiastic statement: “When I agreed to co-sponsor the bill to increase Head Start funding, I expressed to my fellow sponsors that funding it will be a difficult challenge.”
He added: “We must balance the state’s budget. The way we do that will be part of a larger conversation in the coming weeks as the Appropriations Committee considers the recommendations of the Office of Policy and Management and grapples with a $119-million Medicaid-induced shortfall.”
LePage’s Office of Policy and Management, which has targeted a variety of programs, wants to wipe out the entire state Head Start appropriation for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Democrat Berry used the same cautionary language as Fredette, noting that it would be “a challenge” to find additional money for Head Start.