Md. senators speak out against proposed cuts to Head Start

Mikulski, Cardin visit school, criticize GOP priorities on reining in federal spending

March 11, 2011|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

Just a few years ago, Menita Parson says, she was soft-spoken and shy, the kind of person who would not have dared to address a room full of strangers. But as the mother of two girls who have gone through St. Jerome's Head Start program — and a third who is still there — Parson is ready to speak up.

"Head Start is an indispensable part of my life," she said during a news conference Friday at the South Baltimore school, an event held to draw attention to proposed federal budget cuts that could cut more than $1 billion from Head Start nationwide and directly affect the preschool program's efforts at St. Jerome and other neighborhood schools.

If the cuts are enacted, she said, "Head Start will not be able to provide the tools, knowledge or opportunities that so many families need to be successful."

The proposed cuts, part of congressional Republicans' attempts to rein in federal spending, would reduce funding for Maryland's Head Start program by $12.2 million and force out more than 2,300 low-income children, according to program advocates. More than 500 people in the state could lose their jobs.

Such a prospect drew Maryland's two U.S. senators, both Democrats, to the news conference in a classroom at St. Jerome's, brightly decorated with the artistic accomplishments of its pupils.

"We need the other party to be rational and reasonable," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who recalled her days as a social worker years ago, when she helped disadvantaged children at St. Francis Xavier Church at its former home on North Caroline Street in Baltimore. Mikulski said that while everyone supports the goal of a more frugal government, Congress should "not throw women and children under the bus."

Her Senate colleague, Benjamin L. Cardin, said he was outraged that Republicans would simultaneously advocate "extending tax cuts for millionaires and tell Head Start children to leave this program."

No members of the Republican caucus responded to requests for comment Friday, but some have previously been on record as questioning Head Start's effectiveness, its high administrative costs and occasional instances of fraud. Nationwide, the program tends to about 965,000 children, some 218,000 of whom would lose access to its services if the cuts are approved.

Mary Gunning, the director of St. Jerome Head Start, called the idea of such cuts "horrific," but she was unsure how much they might affect the 258 children in her program at eight sites in South and Southwest Baltimore. She said the program still receives some money from other sources.

Gunning and other officials maintain that children who attend the program make significant gains in vocabulary, writing and reading, and have access to health care. "We are a lifeline to many," Gunning said.

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