May 3, 2013 -- By cutting funds for Head Start, sequestration has sent low-income children in some states home 10 days early. But the federal government's inability to agree on a budget didn't prevent 2,800 Head Start leaders from attending a three-day conference in National Harbor, Md., this week.
Chalk it up to the peculiarities of the sequester. In this case, it's O.K. to cut classes for kids, but not O.K. to reallocate Training and Technical Assistance funds.
National Harbor is along the Potomac River, just over the border from Washington, D.C.; it offers hotels, restaurants, shopping and a marina. The Office of Head Start held its second annual "National Birth to Five Leadership Institute" conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. Rooms went for $224 per room per night, a rate set by the U.S General Services Administration; according to Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director of Administration for Children & Families' office of public affairs, the event's total approved cost was $752,059, not including the cost of the stay, meals and air-fare for the grantees.
The conference included seminars and lectures focused on teaching parents, educators and administrators to use data to improve programs. Head Start's mission is to help low-income children from birth to age five develop socially and cognitively before they enter the formal education system.
Community Action Partnership of Kern (CAPK) in Bakersfield, Calif., sent four team members to the training.
CAPK had to reduce the number of days they offer their program this year from 168 to 158, two days below the national standard minimum. Next year they plan to operate 160 days.
Mark Corum, outreach and resource development manager for CAPK, said any day their children aren't attending Head Start is a detriment to both the children's learning and the parents.
"Ideally we're trying to help people with a safety net. You know, they've fallen through the cracks," Corum told ABC News on Thursday. "It's the total family that we bring and embrace and try to make them better."
He's seen "firsthand" how the program has helped parents and children with achieve success in life.
To celebrate Head Start and protest the cuts, Massachusetts organizers are planning a parade on Boston Common for May 31.
They "[h]ope to … perhaps convince some folks in Washington that our children are as important as air traffic controllers and meat inspectors and that they should seriously consider rescinding this foolish sequester that is causing havoc with the lives of our most underprivileged families," John Drew, president and CEO of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), told ABC News in an email Thursday.
The Boston-area Head Start programs considered cutting as many as 250 slots for children at the onset of the sequester cuts. They are continuing to figure out "how many classes, children, teachers and parents will be left behind," when cuts go into effect for their programs in September, Drew said. Of their 650-person staff, ABCD sent two to the conference.
So how can programs facing a 5.2 percent decrease in their budgets afford to send staff to the national conference?
Groups are drawing from a section of their budget set aside for "Training and Technical Assistance." Congress allocates funds for this separately from Head Start's operating costs, and the Office of Head Start absorbed all of the TTA sequester cuts, so that grantee's TTA budgets would remain intact.
"The Office of Head Start is committed to working with programs to ensure the provision of high-quality services continue during this challenging time of sequestration," Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director of Administration for Children & Families' office of public affairs, told ABC News in an email.
TTA money cannot be reallocated to cover operating costs without direction from Congress.
So while Vanessa Gibbons, director of Jackson County Civic Action Committee in Moss Point, Miss., would rather use the money to continue giving her young students a safe place to go before their older siblings' schools let out for the summer, she instead has had to cut her program 10 days short this year.
"They specifically told us we could not cut our training budget. Those dollars were not even in the equation. That would have made it easy. But that was not even an option," Gibbons told ABC News.
The problem is similar to the one the Federal Aviation Administration faced, which led them to furlough workers and space out flights in a way that slowed air travel. But Congress quickly passed a measure giving the FAA the flexibility to reallocate unused improvement funds in order to quash the irksome flight delays.
Some on the left have criticized Congress for a bill targeted at helping the FAA.
"Members of Congress fly often, so they're fixing that sequester mess," New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on Twitter. "But no fix for kids sequestered out of Head Start."
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., posted an animation of an airplane on Twitter with the hashtag, "#endthesequester."
"4 million meals for seniors eliminated … 70,000 children kicked out of Head Start … 125,000 Americans without rental assistance," the message in white lettering on the black plane read. "But your next flight will be on time."