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Helmut Schmidt, Published October 18 2013

Heitkamp says Head Start supporters must stay engaged

FARGO – Head Start has some powerful allies in Washington, and the time is now for supporters to tell their representatives in Congress to safeguard funding for the early childhood education program, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said Friday.

She said it’s time for voters and lawmakers to “put your money where your mouth is” when it comes to proving that children are the nation’s most important investment.

“Our kids need to be a bigger part of the budget,” the North Dakota Democrat told those attending the state Head Start Association’s fall conference. “We need to talk about human development as an economic issue.”

Nationally, Head Start suffered $405 million in automatic budget cuts from sequestration, which is in place until Congress passes a new budget. That has cut 57,265 children from the program, Heitkamp said.

Statewide, Head Start serves about 200 fewer children this fall. In southeast North Dakota alone, the program lost funding for 36 children, said program Director Barry Nelson said.

The program wasn’t affected by the partial government shutdown but would have if it had continued through Dec. 1, Nelson said.

The local Head Start program now serves 291 children ages 3 to 5, and 60 children from infants to age 3, he said. The waiting list averages 300 a year, he said.

Heitkamp said Head Start has powerful supporters in Washington, chief among them, President Barack Obama, Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and top economists.

“All I could hear is true commitment” from Obama, she said. “This is the time to make our argument.”

Heitkamp said supporters of Head Start need to stay engaged in the political process.

“Kids don’t vote, but their moms do, and their dads do, and their day care workers do, and their Head Start workers do, and their teachers do. And we need to demand that those kids get their share,” she said.

Heitkamp said she is optimistic the budget impasse will end in December.

“Come December, we’re going to get a budget for the first time in four years,” though it may “get ugly” before a deal is done, she said.

“I cannot believe rational people will do this again,” she said of the shuttering of government agencies.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583