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Shallow cuts: Efficiency at Head Start

May 04. 2013 3:18AM

The grim ax of sequestration has swung again. The target is New Hampshire's children. Don't believe that story.

Jeanne Agri of Southern New Hampshire Services, using the same talking points as her counterparts in other Head Start programs across America, told the Union Leader that a 5 percent cut in federal funding means closure for Head Start in Hudson and Newmarket. Cuts are planned in Hampton Falls.

"We need to pay attention to what this means to families and to children," Agri warned. She's right. Let's do so.

None of those three programs was full. Hudson serves just 18 pre-school students. They will be given priority for acceptance into the unaffected Nashua program barely one mile away. That's a four minute drive. Only 15 Newmarket area children are in Head Start.

They may be reassigned to nearby Epping or Portsmouth. The program in wealthy Hampton Falls was larger than needed, so cuts there were probably overdue. In all, a few families may be inconvenienced, but an extensive program serving needy children in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties remains firmly in place.

Although the value of its services is not clear, Head Start has long been politically untouchable. Before the sequester, spending rose year after year even though research from liberals and conservatives showed that it is a well-intentioned boondoggle with no measurable lasting impact on the children it serves. Even with the 5 percent cut, its federal budget is higher than in Fiscal 2011. Next year, spending in New Hampshire will still be nearly $14 million.

Agri defends Head Start's goals of school readiness and family self-sufficiency. "If there wasn't a need, we wouldn't have any waiting lists," she argued. That's not so. Free government benefits are generally over-subscribed, even if the program is not truly needed.

She said sequestration forced SNHS's board to analyze demographics and "painfully" determine which towns and cities have the highest need for service. Good. That's what every responsible private company and non-profit organization ought to do at budget time. If these tough, fair decisions would not have been made otherwise, across-the-board budget cuts were indeed overdue.

The service reductions planned by SNHS are neither arbitrary nor deep. They provide more proof that while the sequester is not the ideal way to control inefficient spending, it works.

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