More than 30 children in the Coulee Region could lose access to early childhood education services because of federal budget cuts to Head Start.
The local arm of the program would lose about $135,000 low-income and special needs children unless Congress can come up with an alternative to the so-called sequestration cuts.
The sweeping series of automatic budget reductions were triggered Friday when lawmakers failed to reach a bipartisan deal.
For Head Start, it means cutting class time, dropping students from the program, or both, said Jim Vermeul, executive director of Head Start Child and Family Development Centers Inc.
“We can only serve so many kids,” Vermeul said. “The kids who would normally get into Head Start wouldn’t be able to start.”
Head Start serves families with children ages 3 to 5 years old, preparing them for K-12 classrooms. Statewide, about 900 children would lose access to Head Start and Early Head Start programs because of the cuts, according to the White House.
The local Head Start program shouldn’t see any real setbacks until June, the start of the next fiscal year, Vermeul said.
Lawmakers are optimistic they’ll reach a deal before then.
“We’re hoping that this all could go away,” Vermeul said. “That’s always a possibility.”
The local program works with area school districts to serve more than 400 children in La Crosse, Monroe, Vernon and Crawford counties.
Noel Tiarks’ son was in the program for two years and is excelling in kindergarten now that he has started classes in the Tomah School District. Head Start gave her son time to learn basic academics like math and reading, Tiarks said.
“It provides the first step of an education for these children,” Tiarks said.
Head Start also exposes children to school’s social atmosphere, said Tressa Poirier, whose son went to Head Start. Her daughter is still in the program.
Not all kindergarten students start school ready to interact with the teacher and a new group of peers, Poirier said.
“All of sudden, they’re thrown into this all-day program,” Poirier said. “And they’re terrified.”
Poirier’s not worried about losing Head Start for her own family. She is worried about other children missing out on the program, especially special-needs students.
“They cater to people who might not otherwise be able to get the help they need,” Poirier said.
Tiarks is chairwoman of the local program’s policy committee, a group of parents that meets each month to review rules and procedures. Regardless of how big the budget is, serving students will always be its top priority, Tiarks said.
“We’ll do the best we can to meet as many of the needs of as many children as we can,” Tiarks said.