When Paul Ryan—the newly-minted running mate for presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney—rolled out a federal budget blueprint that would carve deeply from domestic spending, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned that it would be "disastrous" for education, including eliminating 100,000 poor children from Head Start.
That same dire warning about the fate of Head Start came again this past weekend from an Obama campaign spokesman after Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, officially joined the Romney ticket. Ryan's federal budget plan calls for slashing spending by $5.3 trillion over the next decade.
So, just how would a Romney/Ryan White House treat early learning when it comes to investing federal dollars in long-standing programs such as Head Start and subsidies for childcare services?
Answering that question precisely is tricky since Ryan's budget plan doesn't delineate which domestic programs would be targeted and for how much money. But advocates for early-childhood and childcare programs say there are only ominous scenarios for some of the most stalwart government programs for children.
Helen Blank, the director of leadership and public policy at the Washington-based National Women's Law Center, said that Ryan's proposed cuts would be devastating, and would be even worse than those that would be triggered by "sequestration," the automatic cuts to nearly every federal program that will kick in early next year if Congress fails to hammer out an agreement to stop them. If those cuts get triggered, some estimates are that the $8 billion Head Start program would take a $649 million hit, affecting access for up to 100,000 children. For women who rely on childcare subsidies, some 80,000 children would be cut off, Ms. Blank said.
Ryan's budget cuts would go deeper and last longer, especially because his proposal doesn't spread the burden across all agencies such as defense.
"I would say that children who need an early learning experience and women who need childcare to work will suffer severely," she said.
Ken Taylor, the executive director for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, put it this way: "Sequestration is problematic. But the Ryan budget is quadruple-ly problematic."
Taylor points out that in Ryan's home state of Wisconsin, the full range of programs that support families and children took deep cuts in the most recent state budget. The congressman's budget proposal would make a grim situation even worse in Wisconsin, where, he said, "we are already a state that's relatively low as far as our return from Washington."
Tim Nolan, who is the chief executive officer of the National Centers for Learning Excellence, a Head Start provider in Waukesha County, Wisc., said the congressman has not demonstrated a particular interest in early childhood policy. "He has specialized in fiscal and budget policy and that has worked well for him," Nolan said.
Should Romney and Ryan end up in the White House, Nolan said the early childhood world has a very strong argument to present the fiscal conservatives that investing in Head Start and other early childhood programs—which provide a range of services to vulnerable children and their families in the earliest years—will save money for the government down the line in decreased costs for education, social services, and criminal justice.
"Ultimately, I think our biggest hope for winning over Congressman Ryan is explaining to him that if you don't spend $1 billion on Head Start now, that it might save $1 billion in the short term, but it will cost the government many more billions later on," he said.
Incidentally, in Ryan's own congressional district which includes the cities of Racine, Kenosha, and Janesville, there are five Head Start programs serving roughly 2,100 children.
Obviously, we need to acknowledge that it's possible that Romney may have his own ideas on the federal role in early learning opportunities and we shouldn't just assume that Ryan's budget proposal predicts what would happen to Head Start and other programs for children if the pair is elected. Problem is, we've not heard Romney say much, if anything, on those critical first five years in a child's life.
We can also look for clues from Romney's four years as governor of Massachusetts. He signed legislation that created the nation's first state agency—called the Department of Early Education and Care—that consolidated programs and services for children that had been handled separately in the health and human services department and the state education department. He vetoed a 2006 bill—unanimously supported in the Massachusetts legislature—that would have created a statewide prekindergarten program, saying, in his veto message, that he wanted to see the results of a pilot program for state preK before agreeing to scale it up.
Romney's successor, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, signed the prekindergarten legislation in 2008.