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Earth to Boise 

The sequester is further starving early education in Idaho

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On March 1, 2013, just like a blanket of wet snow, the federal sequester was allowed to quietly descend upon our land by an ego-centered, wildly partisan Congress. The sequester did not come completely unannounced, and the Republican Congressmen who let it happen did so with clear knowledge of the consequences.

So in 2013 the state of Idaho is losing $3.7 million dollars for primary and secondary education and jobs for 50 teacher aides. Meals on Wheels for seniors is losing $202,000. Environmental funding for the state is taking a $1.2 million hit.

The general public is not yet feeling the pinch, but like water torture, the sequester is leaving its mark, one drop at a time.

One of the reasons the sequester is below our radar is that a large portion of the cuts hurt programs that help the poor. To be poor is to be virtually invisible.

Of particular pain to me, North Idaho Head Start will lose slots for 17 children. Statewide, the loss will be 200 children; nationwide, 70,000 children will lose access to Head Start.

Head Start provides preschool education for eligible 3-to-5-year-olds, along with health and food advice and counseling to their parents. Only children in families whose income is at or below the federal poverty level are eligible to enroll. Early Head Start offers services to pregnant women, infants and toddlers.

What you and I don’t often ask ourselves: Just what is it like to try to live on $11,490 a year, less than $1,000 a month, or to raise a child alone on $15,310 a year, or for you and your spouse to raise two children on $23,550? Most of the parents of Head Start students have jobs, but their jobs don’t pay enough to lift them above the poverty line.

Unlike many states, Idaho puts no matching state funds into the Head Start program. That reality comes as no surprise, since Idaho is now dead last among states in the number of dollars it invests in its public schools per student.

So there has never been enough money here in the Head Start program, or in other parts of the state, to include all the 3- and 4-year-olds who are eligible to enroll in the preschool classes. Perhaps 20 percent of the eligible children and their families are actually participating in the program.

Isn’t it crazy for the sequester to take money from a very positive program that has been running on a shoestring all along?

Who are these little kids in the North Idaho program? Twenty percent have disabilities and 15 percent are homeless or in foster homes. But each has the potential to succeed. Research and records have proven that children’s abilities are shaped at a very early age. Children enrolled in preschool at ages 3 and 4 will acquire cognitive, social and behavioral skills that will serve them well throughout their school years and into the world of jobs and responsibilities.

A dedicated first-grade teacher recently told me of her worries for the future of Idaho children who enter first grade from homes where their early learning has been sadly neglected. Public kindergartens are in place in Idaho, but attendance is not mandatory. So it’s possible for a child to enter first grade without the benefit of either kindergarten or preschool.

Idaho is one of 10 states that do not provide public preschools for their very youngest citizens, other than federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start. And Idaho has a higher percentage of children in its population than any other state, except Utah and Texas.

We can hope Idaho will eventually join the rest of the country in recognizing that early childhood years, from birth to 4, are vitally important years for expanding a child’s mind and abilities. And early childhood education is relatively inexpensive to fund. If dollars for pre-kindergarten are too much to hope for, full-day kindergarten for all should be a goal for all Idaho school districts.

According to economist Mike Ferguson of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, Idaho will have around $162 million more to spend in the coming year than in the current budget. But like the sequester, that surplus is at the mercy of politicians, who may not hold the future of education or the plight of the poor as their highest priorities.

If education is the ladder out of poverty, the sequester is taking us full speed in the wrong direction. Austerity economics do not make sense in Greece, Spain or anywhere else. To quote economist Robert Reich: “Earth to Washington. Repeal the Sequester.” I would add “Earth to Boise. Ask first: How are the children?”

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