Students swing on a playground at Meadow Lakes Head Start in Wasilla. (Image by Lela Seiler, courtesy of CCS Early Learning)

Students swing on a playground at Meadow Lakes Head Start in Wasilla. (Image by Lela Seiler, courtesy of CCS Early Learning)

Stagnant funding results in Alaska pre-K school closure, instability for vulnerable children

Head Start programs scramble as COVID-19 relief and a one-time state funding boost peter out.

Meadow Lakes Head Start, a preschool in Wasilla that has 45 students, will close down at the end of the year. Half of the students will move on to kindergarten and the rest will have to find another preschool. The board of the nonprofit CCS Early Learning, which operates the Meadow Lakes program, made the decision at its January meeting.

Board President Michelle Greco has volunteered and worked with Head Start schools for the last 15 years. She said the decision comes on top of a deep cut to enrollment at the beginning of the year. The board, which runs five Head Start facilities in the region, had to cut 50 state-funded slots because they cannot afford them.

“We cut and cut and cut,” she said. “We cut bus routes, we were trying to cut everything else we can cut before we got to here.” But by next year, CCS will serve 95 fewer children.

Alaska’s Head Start program provides child care, early education and services like health care and dental to more than 3,000 children in low-income families. Struggling Head Start programs got $1.5 million in one-time funding last year, but will see state funding dip this year without a change. Last year the Legislature would have given Head Starts $5 million in one-time funding, but Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed most of it.

The federal government pays for 80% of the program and for several decades, Alaska met the full 20% match. That has slipped over the last decade. Now the state funds roughly half of the match, and care centers have to find the rest of the money.

Greco said all of the CCS facilities have closed classrooms right now because they cannot keep staff. It is part of a workforce crisis that has closed one in five Head Start classrooms nationwide.

“Right now our starting aide position wage is less than they can make at McDonald’s or Target in our area. So we need some pretty significant wage increases,” she said. She said they offer 33% less than the starting salary at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, and the benefits don’t keep pace either.

Understaffing has meant the centers cannot accept more students despite overwhelming demand. Fewer students mean the centers qualify for less federal funding. The lack of funding led to the school closure decision.

She said she is unsure what families will do. “I know there’s been some not happy parents — I don’t blame them, losing their community center like that,” she said.

Greco understands because her son went to Head Start when she was a young mother and her husband was often out of town for work. She said she made friends there, had access to parenting classes and saw her son and his classmates enter kindergarten “a step ahead.”

Earliest education

Of the 3,000 children Head Start serves in Alaska, more than 800 are in Early Head Start, which is for infants and toddlers under the age of 3.

The stage of life from 0-3 years is the most flexible for a child’s development and public policy can affect the outcomes, according to Cynthia Osborne, a professor of early childhood education and policy and the director of a nonpartisan research group at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. She spoke to the Senate Education Committee in a meeting this week.

“They’re the most rapid and sensitive period of development,” she said. “And we know that children who are exposed to safe and stable and nurturing environments in those earliest years are set on a trajectory for lifelong health and well being.”

She recommended the state consider paid family leave programs, child care subsidies and support for early Head Start, where she noted that funding has flagged in the last decade.

At the meeting, Nikolas Moe, the public policy manager for child care-focused nonprofit thread, called on lawmakers to increase the childcare program office operating budget line item that would support early child care providers. Thread serves as a resource for child care providers, including with training and advocacy.

Moe said the 0-3 age group is also the one most in need of child care in Alaska.

“More than 60% of thread’s child care referrals for families are from those needing infant and toddler care. But unfortunately, and mostly due to costs, we’ve seen programs offered less and less infant and toddler care over the last five years,” he said.

COVID relief funds and one-time funding from the state have been absolutely essential to keep programs open and keep child care providers employed, Moe said.

“What we desperately need now is sustainable funding from the state,” he said.

Moe said policymakers cannot expect the small business owners who run many care programs to make long-term decisions, like hiring staff or expanding their facilities, with only one-time funding, nor expect the early educators and child care providers to forego better career opportunities with only a one-time award or bonus.

Greco said that CCS’s share of last year’s one-time funding boost was not enough for the organization to raise wages, which is what care centers need to retain employees and get children off of their waitlists and into classrooms. Instead they spent all the money on three $300 bonus checks to every employee.

“One-time funding can’t be used to increase wages, because how do you tell those people that are getting the wage decrease next year? You can’t do that,” she said.

Head Start offers its programs at no charge. Greco said at CCS they try to make up the difference with donations and from in-kind donations — like the hours she puts towards serving on the board, for example.

Mark Lackey, the CCS executive director, said he is cautiously optimistic that lawmakers will prioritize the program this year. He said it makes economic sense. That is not just because giving the state’s youngest vulnerable population resources to help them succeed can save money later, but because the state loses out on federal money when programs like his have to downsize without state support, Lackey said.

“In Alaska, every single year $62 million — at last count — flows into our state [for Head Start] from Alaska’s federal tax dollars,” he said.

“As a state we have to protect that federal investment, we have to nurture that federal investment,” Lackey said. “Or our tax dollars will not be supporting the services in our state — they’ll support the services in other states.”

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