As many as 45 preschoolers could be without a classroom come January unless Congress moves to halt budget cuts scheduled for the end of the year.
State and early education officials say Washington's federally funded Head Start preschool program may drop as many as 1,400 children unless federal lawmakers do something to avoid automatic cuts.
There's no official word on how the cuts would affect the program in the Tri-Cities, which has six locations serving just fewer than 450 kids from infants to age 4 from low-income and at-risk families.
But, if cuts are applied equally across the state, the local program's budget could be cut by 10 percent, laying off teachers and other staff and leaving students waiting for a slot in other programs, putting them at risk of being behind their classmates when they eventually enter kindergarten.
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"Right now all of our slots are full -- and that is mostly an issue of having space to house the program in our elementary schools," said Lorraine Cooper, spokeswoman for the Kennewick School District on its equivalent state-funded preschool program.
Head Start and it's state-funded equivalent, Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, or ECEAP, serve families that typically can't afford preschool for their children.
Jim Skucy, executive director for Benton-Franklin Head Start, said his program works on emotional and social development of children but is also tying more of its classroom curriculum to what children will see when they reach kindergarten and elementary school.
"We want the kids to go into kindergarten prepared," he said.
Head Start falls under the budget of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, one of the agencies targeted by legislation from August 2011 that allowed Congress to raise the federal government's debt-ceiling in exchange for budget cuts lawmakers would agree to later.
However, if Congress failed to agree to cuts, the legislation forces across-the-board cuts in various federal departments, including in the Department of Defense and the State Department.
Head Start already is constrained by how much space it has in its classrooms and its budget. Skucy said his program has an annual budget of about $3.9 million, but that's not enough to serve all eligible children in the Tri-Cities.
"We typically have 200 kids on a waiting list at any given time," he said.
Cutting children already enrolled will add to that waiting list as well as to the one for ECEAP programs in Kennewick and Richland. Only about half of students eligible for that program in the state are enrolled in it as it faces the same space and money limitations as Head Start.
"Thus far, the state has shown support for ECEAP because they see a high return on investment in reaching young students and their families before they enter the K-12 system," Cooper said.