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Lobby for our kids’ future can’t seem to get off the ground

Head Start program director David Colburn, left, and Head Start student Cheylynn Bloor-Stokes, 5, look at each other through colored plastics Tuesday at the Northeast Community Center. (Colin Mulvany)
Head Start program director David Colburn, left, and Head Start student Cheylynn Bloor-Stokes, 5, look at each other through colored plastics Tuesday at the Northeast Community Center. (Colin Mulvany)

If only those Head Start kids could do something to make the lives of air travelers more pleasant.

Bring them a hot towel, say, or a cool drink or a meal on wheels. Give them a foot rub with lavender-infused oil. Anything at all that might make them more worthy of congressional consideration.

Until then, we’ll live with the knowledge that as a political culture, we are pretty cool with cutting preschool programs for the most vulnerable people in the country, but we are outraged – spurred to bold, decisive, instant action – by inconvenience in air travel.

Congress, which has not been able to agree for years now on whether the sun rises in the east or west, produced a bipartisan solution last week for the grave problems of flight delays caused by the sequester cuts. Unfixed remain any and every program with a less influential constituency.

“I wonder if all the Head Start parents were contributing to political campaigns, if they’d be quicker in fixing this,” asked Joel Ryan, executive director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP programs. “Inconveniences – they’ll instantly do something. But when kids are losing Head Start, nobody will do anything. There hasn’t been any effort to fix this.”

The sequester – the across-the-board 5 percent cuts that were intended as a threat to force Congress into a budget compromise – is having a lot of consequential effects on marginalized people. Ryan says that around 1,000 kids in Washington are going to lose their spots in Head Start, the program intended to help low-income children overcome the kinds of problems that can leave them starting kindergarten at huge disadvantages.

Each community’s program will handle its cuts in different ways, he said. Some are eliminating certain services altogether, such as transportation. Some are reducing the number of days they’re operating. Some are simply cutting the number of kids served – this, when the waiting lists already stretch endlessly.

In Spokane, for example, Head Start programs serve around 900 children in 30 locations. These are kids who come from low-income families or who face other challenges. Is 900 a lot? The waiting list is around 800.

Eight hundred children. If only they had representation in Congress.

David Colburn, director of program services in Spokane, said that his programs have managed to avoid immediate cuts – but will lose 42 spots when the school year starts in the fall. These are slots at the Hillyard center, which is closing due to freeway construction; the original plan was to shift them to other centers.

“Now we’re not going to relocate them,” Colburn said. “We’ll just lose them.”

The number of research studies and scientific symposia devoted to the problems and potential of early childhood should have convinced us long ago that investing in early childhood programs pays off.

Cutting them pays off, too.

Many are impervious to this argument. They’re the ones who might term Head Start an “entitlement,” using the language to imply takerhood, overreach, undeservitude. The long-term unemployed, Meals on Wheels recipients, those who need housing assistance – in political terms, these are flightless birds. Grounded. All will suffer under the sequester, but none will muster one-millionth of the political capital of those whose flights were delayed by 40 minutes.

The sequester is merely the most current chapter in the government’s unfolding inability to govern. Part of what would be amusing about it – if it weren’t disgusting, instead – is watching hypocrisies fly. My favorites come from those who dream of invigoration through budget cuts, who more or less constantly push the dream of drowning that government baby, painlessly – only to squeal when they find themselves confronted with the tiniest pain.

Is it possible that our hard-headed budgeteers, our entitlement hawks, imagine we can cut dramatically without noticing any effect to themselves and their environs? Is it possible that they believe all the pain can be focused on the flightless?

Or just that it should be?

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.