November 20, 2017

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AASL, Head Start Praise Federal Budget’s Focus on Early Learning

Congress.jpgThe American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and the National Head Start Association (NHSA) are praising the inclusion of significant monies for early childhood education in the $1.012 trillion budget deal that House and Senate legislators swiftly passed this week. However, both organizations say challenges to library and literacy funding and to issues of equity still remain—and the budget, while welcome, comes too late to help the 57,000 children cut off from Head Start during last year’s government shutdown.

“I don’t think anybody expected it to pass as quickly as it did,” Gail Dickinson, president of AASL, tells School Library Journal. “But we’re happy that it did. I’m very happy that the money flow can start.”

The fiscal year 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Bill restores most of the federal education funding that was dramatically cut in March 2013 during Congressional sequestration, including 86 percent of Title I funds for poor districts and 86 percent of special education funds. The bill also includes appropriations for Head Start of $8.6 billion, an increase of $1.025 billion over current funding levels,  $500 million of which is to expand Early Head Start for children and families from before birth through age three.

“We are thrilled that the appropriations legislation…restores the Head Start funding lost to sequestration and prioritized an additional, robust investment in Early Head Start,” says Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the NHSA. Vinci also praises Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski and House Appropriations Chair Rep. Hal Rogers, for “their shared commitment to reopening the window of opportunity for our most vulnerable children.”

Adds Dickinson, “Because early literacy is so important, the funds for Head Start make a huge difference for both school and public libraries. First of all, now public libraries have a group of children to work with. Because Head Start exists, the children come together there and we can work with them in supplying materials. And at the school level, they’re just coming into school stronger in literacy potential. They’re coming in literally with the head start that they need so badly.”

But Dickinson notes that, unfortunately, this bill does not go as far as federal budgets in previous years had done to support students. “We’re always trying to get back to where we were,” she tells SLJ. “I wish, in fact, that there was categorical funding—meaning every school in the country would get x amount per pupil to spend on libraries. [But] I’m not sure that we’ll ever achieve categorical funding again.”

Addressing inequities
Dickinson says AASL is also concerned that the spending bill’s big focus on funding formula-based initiatives, in which states and districts must apply for grants, could lead to more inequities.

“The trend with the federal government now is the money has to be applied for and it tends to benefit the poorest schools, the lowest socioeconomic schools,” she explains. “I just want to point out that that’s not the same as benefiting the poorest students, because in every school there are poor students in need, whether the school itself is high-wealth, middle- or low wealth.”

“And when we have funds that only go to the very poorest schools, there are children who still do not have materials to read, they don’t have updated technology, and they don’t have access to resources. The only way to ensure that happens, that there’s absolute equity, is categorical funding,” she says.

Still, Dickinson says she is hopeful that the budget will have at least some positive impact on school library programs. “I’m very happy that at least there is some money in this budget…that will help school libraries,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a drop of water in a parched and empty bucket, but we are still grateful for that drop of water. Now we start on the very hard task of preparing school libraries for applying for these funds and making sure that these funds actually end up in their hands.”

Dickinson and Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the National Education Association (NEA), had both noted to SLJ recently that the boon to poorer school districts included in the new federal spending bill finally could ease budget squeezes that have, in many states, forced the elimination of school librarians and cutbacks to many states’ early literacy programs.

Due to tight state and city budgets since the recession, which were compounded by sequestration, school districts—in communities in Colorado, California, Vermont, Utah, Michigan, Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, for example—had looked to eliminate or downsize its roster of media specialists in order to save or redistribute their  funds.

Head Start struggles
At the same time as school libraries have struggled to meet students’ needs, thousands of younger children lost access to Head Start last year. While the budget restores access to Head Start going forward for the remainder of 2014, those kids who missed their opportunity are left out in the cold.

Notes Vinci, “Sequestration devastated Head Start programs in 2013. Not only did more than 57,000 children lose access to Head Start and Early Head Start, but over 1.3 million service days were lost, transportation was slashed, staff positions were eliminated, and entire Head Start centers closed.”

And although all of the NHSA chapters are excited about the early learning funds in the new budget—especially for the expansion of the critically needed Early Head Start outreach program—the terrible impact of the sequester and subsequent shutdown cannot be understated., “There’s no make up for this,” says Blair Hyatt, executive director of Pennsylvania Head Start Association.

“[Those children] didn’t get a high-quality early learning experience and their families did not get the family support and family development that the programs do to make sure that children have a dental home, a medical home, and to make sure any disability challenges are addressed,” Hyatt tells SLJ. “None of that stuff happened for those children, and that means they are way more likely to enter kindergarten without the personal skills or the family strengths to really thrive or succeed in school.”

Adds Dickinson, “Someone could argue that there will always be three-year-olds, but we’ve missed an opportunity; they are now past that bubble where we could help them. If we did that in an environment where we were dealing with things not people, we could call it criminal negligence.”

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.

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