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Durbin warns of cuts to preschool funding

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

AURORA — Concepcion Reyes’ 5-year-old son, Matthew, didn’t know how to spell his first name or identify colors when he came to Head Start one year ago. She was worried about his development and his shyness, she said.

But after a year in the early-childhood program, Reyes said Matthew knows how to spell his first and last name as well as identify colors and shapes. He’ll be on track with his kindergarten peers at Bardwell Elementary this fall, she said.

Reyes was joined by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, in Aurora Wednesday to speak against a $1.1 billion cut to early-childhood programs in the House of Representative’s 2011 fiscal year spending bill.

Durbin said the 20 percent cut in funding would devastate low-income families and stunt economic recovery in Illinois.

“Head Start gives low-income children the solid foundation they need to succeed from elementary school to college and beyond,” Durbin said. “Arbitrarily slashing funding for these programs will hinder our long-term economic recovery.”

An estimated 9,000 students and 2,000 educators in Illinois would be affected by the proposed cuts to early-childhood education services, which includes the Head Start program and public school district preschool programs. The House Bill was approved in late February.

Nationally, the cuts would eliminate early-childhood services for 218,000 children and force 16,000 Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms to close their doors.

Funding for all education programs would be cut by nearly $4.9 billion under the bill.

Head Start provides low-income, preschool-age kids with school activities, health screenings and healthy snacks. About 41,000 children in Illinois are enrolled in a Head Start program.

Students who complete Head Start are more prepared for kindergarten, more likely to graduate high school and have a reduced need for intervention services down the line, said Lauri Morrison-Frichtl, Illinois executive director of Head Start.

“Early Head Start and Head Start are programs to build and improve, not to cut,” she said. “Before we cut programs like Head Start, we need to convince Congress there’s truly nothing more important that our children’s education.”

Durbin called the cuts “irresponsible” at this point in the nation’s economic recovery and called for bipartisan support for early-childhood programs.

“It troubles me that education is one of the first things to be cut. There’s no substitute for programs like this,” Durbin said.

Kids who don’t go to preschool are more likely to drop out of high school, Durbin said.

“That’s not good for their families or for America,” he said.

Instead, Durbin recommended cuts be made to other parts of the national budget, like military spending and tax subsidies for oil companies, who are making record profits despite the downturn in the economy, he said.

“Americans that are the best off have got to be best prepared to sacrifice,” Durbin said.

In between talking to school administrators and addressing concerns with the spending bill, Durbin took time to read “Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?” to Romana Ali’s 3- and 4-year-old preschool class.

Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner said that while there is a lot of debate about what the government does and doesn’t do right, there is little debate about Head Start’s effectiveness.

“I was very distraught to hear the government may cut funding for Head Start,” Weisner said.

With education becoming increasingly competitive internationally, Weisner said it is clear that “we need to be competitive into the future.”

“This is exactly the type of program that we want to enhance,” he said.

Reyes said her son has gained necessary skills at the Head Start center on Jackson Street. More than 300 kids attend a Head Start program in Aurora, and more than 100 kids are on the entry waiting list, said Diane Lacey, director of Aurora Head Start.

“I was afraid as a mom that he was going to go to kindergarten not knowing how to spell his name,” she said. “I don’t worry about that anymore.”

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