Palmer Head Start teacher Moriah Morris sits with children. (Photo courtesy of Mark Lackey)
In Alaska, only a third of 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 lower than it was a decade a ago.
This year, the Legislature earmarked $5 million for an increase so the state’s Head Start programs could match federal contributions, but Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed most of it, slashing the increase to $1.5 million.
It’s left program directors like Mark Lackey, who runs the Head Start in Wasilla, concerned that he may not be able to hire and retain enough teachers.
“I have waiting lists, you know, 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.”
But he said he doesn’t have the money. 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.
“We’ve got 12 months to get fully enrolled,” he said. “I can’t keep enough people employed. Because the work that I have for folks is hard and difficult and emotionally and physically demanding. When you think about a classroom of 18 4-year-olds — that is hard work. And my teacher aides right now, you know, they could make more money at Target.”
He said he’s dependent on sustainable revenue to be able to hire the teachers that make enrolling students possible. If he’d gotten his share of the Legislature’s proposed $5 million increase to the Head Start program, he said would have had $500,000 to increase teacher 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.
Since the Head Start program in its present form came to Alaska in the 1980s, the state has contributed funding to keep federal dollars coming into the state for the program. For the first few decades of the Head Start program, the state met the full 20% match required to operate a program under federal law, but since about 2010, said Lackey, that’s been slipping. Now the state funds only 12% of the match, and care centers have to find the rest of the money.
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,” he said.
Not just education
Head Start is early education, but it has a focus on families, too. That means working with parents to help achieve stable housing and employment, things that can stabilize a child’s life for better health and learning outcomes.
Trevor Storrs leads Alaska Children’s Trust, a children’s advocacy nonprofit that focuses on preventing abuse and neglect in the state, and 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.
Storrs said the amount the state has put towards education has gone down dramatically over the past decade. When adjusted for inflation, it’s gone down by more than 15%.
“It’s not a surprise that we have greater issues like mental health, food insecurity, all these issues were seen as a state continually growing in those areas, versus lessening,” he said. “We’re doing less in primary prevention, which is less costly than downstream.”
Deborah Riddle supervises a Head Start team for Alaska’s education department and said it’s a struggle to staff education programs everywhere. “Head Start and those early childhood certifications or credentials are… we’re struggling with that as well,” she said.
Riddle said her Head Start employees are working on solutions to bring more teachers into Head Start, such as a training and certification course that’s offered in some high schools.
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