On June 24, our Executive Director Joel Ryan submitted testimony on the 2022 budget to the US Senate Appropriations Committee.

Public Witness Testimony of Joel Ryan, Executive Director, Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP (WSA)

Submitted to:

  • Subcommittee on Labor, Health & Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies
  • Senate Committee on Appropriations

Addressing:

  • Department of Health and Human Services
  • Administration for Children and Families
  • Head Start and Early Head Start
  • FY 2022 Appropriation

 

Dear Chairman Murray, Ranking Member Blunt, and Members of the Subcommittee,

On behalf of the Head Start community, thank you for this opportunity to share the FY22 recommendation for Head Start funding.

I have the distinct pleasure of serving as the Executive Director of the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP (WSA)—a statewide non-profit organization composed of representatives from Head Start, Early Head Start, Migrant/Seasonal Head Start, Native American Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP, the statewide early childhood program). WSA represents 52 Head Start programs from Bellingham to Walla Walla, including migrant and seasonal and tribal programs. We are immensely proud of our efforts to build early learners and support families facing financial hardships.

These past 16 months have been like none other. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested and challenged the nation’s 1,600 Head Start programs and required program managers and directors to adapt overnight, think creatively, and juggle the complexities of supporting children and families while also protecting them as well as staff and meeting local, state, and federal guidelines. Last program year, little did we know, social distancing, virtual learning, higher health and sanitation standards, and workforce safety would emerge as daily issues and priorities.

Thankfully, Congress and this Committee stood with us through this turbulent season. Because of you, Head Start programs by and large were able to return to services quickly, stay open, and support children with in-person learning. When the first major outbreak overtook Washington state, in-person services had to be re-thought and virtual learning options made swiftly available. Quickly and competently, programs responded to emerging family needs including delivering food, learning materials, and cleaning supplies to doorsteps, holding Zoom dance parties with preschoolers, and supporting the mental health needs of parents and guardians. Several Head Start programs remained open onsite during the entirety of the pandemic including the Denise Louie Education Center in Seattle which provided childcare to many front line and essential workers and parents that needed to be at work in person.

These heroic efforts undertaken by the Head Start community this past year would not have been possible without COVID-19 relief funding from Congress. Thank you.

As Head Start increasingly returns to regular programming and doubles down on recruitment and enrollment, and the nation comes out from underneath the cloud of COVID-19, the National Head Start Association (NHSA) is seeking $12.1 billion in FY22. This level of funding will help Head Start programs get back on track in three distinct ways:

  • by reassuring and bolstering the workforce ($247 million);
  • by addressing growing and compounded childhood trauma through staff training and additional counseling support ($363 million); and
  • by extending program duration for programs and families desperate for more hours of care and support ($730 million).

These are all long-standing priorities for NHSA and for programs across the country—workforce investment, Quality Improvement Funding for trauma-informed care, and extended duration—and we look forward to working with Congress to meet these goals. Addressing these critical needs is foundational to delivering the best results for children from at-risk backgrounds.

Equally important to the quality of our programs and the health, safety, and future success of Head Start is a long-overdue, often overlooked issue: infrastructure.

Five years ago, the US Department of Health and Human Services identified over $4.2 billion in Head Start capitalization needs, yet Head Start’s facilities needs have largely gone unaddressed. Local programs are unable to afford critical health and safety updates, to support access and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, to acquire licensable space in new neighborhoods, or to make modest updates to align with what we know is best for early childhood facilities. Head Start programs are serving children and families from the most at-risk backgrounds—those below the poverty line and a disproportionate share of children of color. In many cases, these children are in buildings that are a half-century old, crumbling, and out-of-date. Our Head Start programs, the children who spend most of their days in these centers, and the communities that house these facilities are in desperate need of long overdue investment.

In the state of Washington, our programs have persistently underfunded facility construction and classroom upgrades. Washington State Head Start programs are in desperate need of:

  • HVAC systems and air filtration.
  • Building repairs, including stairs and railings.
  • Updated and/or new buses to ensure children can consistently get back and forth to school.
  • New classrooms to handle an influx of children who need in person services; and
  • Funds to build and construct new early learning facilities.

Please allow me to share specific examples from Head Start providers in my state:

Tulalip Tribe Head Start currently serves 74 Early Head Start children, 80 state funded preschool children, 112 child care spots, and 112 tribally funded kids. They need $1.6 million to add three classrooms to their Head Start/Child Care wing. This expansion project would address social distancing needs to meet licensing requirements and the influx of children moving from remote to in-person learning this fall as well as enable programing for another 30 children and families.

This year has highlighted the need for outdoor play and learning spaces. Family Services of Grant County in Moses Lake has active plans to acquire neighboring property to create outdoor classroom space for each preschool room. This expansion would add gardens and make critical safety improvements. The cost of this project totals $1 million.

Moses Lake is also in immediate need for a larger transportation and maintenance building, additional parking, and improved drop-off vehicle access. The existing garage space is restrictive and lacks on-site storage. Moses Lake would like to turn the current garage into storage space, and build a new bus barn with more bays, so that the current space could be used as a small mechanical repair shop and perform preventative maintenance, reducing costs and extending the life of existing buses. They estimate that the cost for this project is about $1.7 million.

Finally, Okanogan County Child Development Association (OCCDA) in Northeast Washington has struggled to find long-term, sustainable educational space for five years and COVID-19 guidelines exacerbate this concern. OCCDA previously partnered with the Tonasket School District but after failed levy attempts, and the school district’s own struggles for space, the lease was terminated in 2017. This forced OCCDA to relocate Tonasket Head Start and ECEAP programs to the building that was used for Early Head Start and subsequently relocate Early Head Start to a local church for a short period before landing at a workable, but not ideal downtown location. These moves have squeezed more children and staff into fewer and fewer square feet.

In 2018, OCCDA applied and was awarded and the Early Learning Facilities Technical Assistance Grant to plan for a potential future consolidated learning center; however, funds to purchase the property and build the facility are still lacking. The estimated cost for purchase and build at the time of our Feasibility Study was $1.5 million. For OCCDA, the pandemic has made a bad infrastructure concern far worse. As a result, current facility size and availability limits OCCDA’s ability to conduct five-day per-week in-person classes to two days a week in Tonasket.

These examples are replayed over and over again in the 52 Head Start programs in the State of Washington. While there is a strong desire to return to pre-COVID-19 conditions, for Head Start programs, the road back is harder and longer. Candidly, we are not interested in simply “going back.” We want to go forward. The pandemic has shone a bright light on deferred maintenance and strained or inadequate childcare facilities. Every Head Start program would welcome more children, however, the present-day constraints in many ways prevent expansion. Meaningful investments in our infrastructure—alongside funding for our workforce, sustained support for mental health and trauma response, and strengthening our existing program service hours—are critical in FY22 to helping children and families make a strong return.

In the days and weeks ahead, the Head Start community would appreciate Congress’s full embrace of the NHSA FY22 Recommendation of $12.1 billion. The community also urges Congress to commit to an examination of Head Start’s infrastructure constraints and how the federal government might partner with local programs to address these urgent needs.

Thank you for your consideration.