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Alaska lawmakers move to double state support for Head Start early childhood programs

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Alaska lawmakers move to double state support for Head Start early childhood programs

May 28, 2024 | 9:00 pm ET
By Claire Stremple
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Alaska lawmakers move to double state support for Head Start early childhood programs
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A child peeks through a scope made from a piece of paper at Meadow Lakes Head Start Center in 2023. (Photo by Lela Sieler through CCS Early Learning)

Alaska lawmakers approved legislation that would nearly double the state’s support to early childhood programs for low income families.

The boost comes amid a crisis the child care sector, where low wages suppress the number of spaces available and reduce access to care.

Mark Lackey, director of a Head Start program in Wasilla, attributes the change to the scope of the problem. “There were schools closing down, there were classrooms being shuttered,” he said.

Last year the Legislature would have given Head Starts $5 million in one-time funding, but Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed most of it.

The new proposal still needs Dunleavy’s approval to become law, but Lackey said this year he is optimistic. He pointed to the governor’s initiation of a task force to find solutions to the child care crunch: “He saw that the sector needed help and that he saw that families were not able to stay in Alaska.”

Alaska’s Head Start program provides child care, early education and services like health and dental care to more than 3,000 children in low-income families. The federal government funds 80% of Head Start costs and programs need to come up with the rest of the money.

The state of Alaska paid the full 20% match for the programs for decades until the price of oil sank in 2010. State support has shrunk about half of the match.

House Bill 148 includes a commitment that the state will increase its contribution to the full 20% match. This year that is a $5.2 million increase.

Lackey said that’s necessary because Head Start programs, unlike private centers, cannot increase their rates to support better wages for staff. “We’re serving parents that don’t have those resources,” he said. “So when our grants are flat for 14 years — it really hurts. So this is huge.”

The years of flat-funding, coupled with the instability of pandemic years and rising prices, took their toll on his organization. Just two weeks ago, Meadow Lakes Head Start, one of his Wasilla preschools that served about 45 students, closed for good. The board of CCS Learning cut nearly 100 spaces this year because the organization could not afford enough staff.

Now, he said they can start to rebuild.

“I’m excited about being able to advertise our vacancies at a wage that isn’t lower than Target, “ he said. “Individuals that are taking care of young children, they have a lot of responsibility on their plate and they should be compensated accordingly.”

The increase also benefits rural areas. Anne Shade, director of Bristol Bay Native Association’s child care programs, called it “life changing.”

In her region, an area about the size of Ohio, Head Start works in conjunction with the school district and is the only early childhood option. But she said Head Start often loses highly qualified workers to the district, where wages are higher. That has led to classroom closures in the past. With the increased funding, she said she can compete for the most skilled workers.

“The prices are so high out here. We’re looking at going to almost $7 a gallon for gas, milk at $10 a gallon — you can’t pay people $14 an hour, you can’t survive,” she said.

Lackey said the state’s commitment staves off future closures and allows Head Start programs to rebuild.

“I think this absolutely gives breathing room and keeps future closures from being so imminent. I know that programs all around the state of Alaska are still under-enrolled. And we are going to have to have time to hire new people at better wages to get them trained, you know, to get back to where we were pre pandemic.”

Lawmakers also included $7.5 million in the budget for grants for child care centers and a number of policy changes aimed at increasing access for families. Lackey has worked in early childhood for decades and said this support is unlike what he’s experienced before.

“I’ve been going to Juneau now for 20 years and have never felt such a successful legislative session for early childhood,” he said.