Shaquille ONeal and Esperanza Spalding, two Head Start graduates.

Credit: AP Photos

We Can't Afford To Lose Head Start

September 16, 2013

In my house, schooling was early and often. My mother was an educator, and this former teacher, turned citywide education administrator, was never more intentional about teaching than in her own home. My father assisted my mother as she guided me through toddler-friendly reading, math and history lessons. I was ahead of the game in kindergarten and it made all the difference.

Twenty-seven million children have had the same advantage I did courtesy of Head Start, a federal program set up nearly 50 years ago, for low-income preschoolers. NBA and Celtics alum Shaquille O’ Neal is a Head Start grad, as is three-time Grammy winner and Berklee College of Music professor Esperanza Spalding.

But this fall, nearly 2,000 three- and four-year olds in Massachusetts couldn’t enroll in the program. That’s because Head Start is another victim of the Congressional across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

Western Massachusetts cities, including Springfield, are hardest hit, with 230 Head Start slots gone. Springfield is one of the state’s most economically depressed; it can’t afford to lose any educational support, especially one that could give some of its most needy students a leg up. What’s worse, the loss of Head Start slots is also a loss of nutrition services that are part of the program, at a time when one in four Massachusetts children goes hungry.

Numerous studies have documented the short and long-term success of Head Start in leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students. Pam Kuechler, the executive director of Massachusetts Head Start, says investment is the best argument for support of the program. Kuechler says for every $1 of Head Start money, there is a $7 return linked to graduates’ boosted income and employment, as well as reduced crime and welfare.

No question — we have to make choices about where we — as a nation — put our limited resources. But we need to understand the consequences of putting thousands of kids educationally behind at the very beginning of their lives.

“We kill all the caterpillars,” wrote author John Marsden, “then complain there are no butterflies.”

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