Governor's budget veto hits Head Start programs statewide, including Wrangell

Only a third of Alaska children meet the state’s goals to be ready for kindergarten. But the state’s share of funding for Head Start, a mostly federally funded child care and health program that promotes school readiness specifically for low-income families, is less than it was a decade ago.

This year, the Legislature appropriated a $5 million increase so that Head Start programs could match federal contributions, but Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed most of it, slashing the increase to $1.5 million.

“Gov. Dunleavy’s veto of much of the Legislature’s approved increase in Head Start funding has hindered Head Start programs,” said Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, which administers the program in 15 Southeast communities, including Wrangell.

“There has been no increase in state funding for Head Start since 2010,” Peterson said in a prepared statement Friday, July 14. “The flat funding has resulted in a reduction of children from low-income families being served and the inability for Head Start programs to retain staffing levels at competitive wages to ensure continuity of care in the early childhood services.”

The governor’s veto “comes at a time when Alaska is facing a critical child care shortage that has greatly impacted working families,” Peterson said.

There are 20 kids enrolled in the Wrangell Head Start program. “We are full every year,” said lead teacher Sandy Churchill. “We have a waitlist.”

The programs are dependent on sustainable revenue to hire enough teachers to serve their communities. For Wasilla program director Mark Lackey, the Legislature’s $5 million increase in Head Start funding would have meant a $500,000 boost for his teachers’ salaries. Instead, he estimates his program will get roughly $150,000. “That doesn’t go very far. That is not going to make meaningful differences for recruitment and retention,” he said.

Like Wrangell, Lackey has “waiting lists … a mile long,” he said. “For years, I have told people: If I had the money to do it, I could serve twice as many children.”

His program and six others in the state are on notice from the federal government that their funding is in jeopardy if they don’t hire more teachers. But without competitive pay, it’s difficult to attract new staff. “The work that I have for folks is hard and difficult and emotionally and physically demanding,” he said. “When you think about a classroom of 18 4-year-olds — that is hard work. And my teacher aides right now … they could make more money at Target,” said Lackey.

“Although the one-time, non-permanent increase of $1.5 million in state funding helps, it is not enough to fully support Head Start programs and makes it difficult to plan long term,” Peterson said.

Since the program in its present form came to Alaska in the 1980s, the state has contributed funding to keep federal dollars coming in. For the first few decades of the program, the state met the full 20% match required to operate under federal law, but since about 2010, said Lackey, that’s been slipping. Now the state funds only 12%, and care centers have to find the rest of the money elsewhere.

He said that’s harder than ever, since a statewide child care crunch means Head Start programs have to increase their wages to compete with school districts and other care centers.

“I don’t think we’ll close,” he said. “But I’m worried that we will serve fewer children. That’s the real risk for us.”

He said his facility mostly serves children in foster care or who are unhoused. “The kids that we don’t serve, really need our services,” Lackey said.

Trevor Storrs leads Alaska Children’s Trust, a children’s advocacy nonprofit that focuses on preventing abuse and neglect in the state, said there’s nothing else in Alaska like Head Start.

“Head Start, as we say, is actually primary prevention,” he said. “They work with the entire family — connecting them to services, providing home support, things of that nature. So by doing that, they really address social and economic challenges, health, education, as well as just general family and community issues.”

Storrs called it an “upstream” solution that could save the state money by reducing social issues like homelessness, hunger, unemployment, abuse and neglect before they develop.

In addition to the Head Start veto, education advocates have criticized the governor for vetoing half of the Legislature’s funding increase this year for K-12 public schools.

“This administration has claimed to be supportive of education, however, there has been no resources or actions to support that,” said Peterson. “The lack of support for early education by this administration will have lasting impacts on our state.”

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. The Wrangell Sentinel also contributed reporting for this story.


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