CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dozens of tiny empty chairs sat Thursday evening on Virginia Street in Charleston as people came out to protest funding cuts to Head Start programs across the state and country.
In West Virginia, 461 fewer children will have access to Head Start this year than they did in 2012 because of the federal sequestration, according to the National Head Start Association. Head Start is a pre-kindergarten education program offered to low-income children that also provides social, health and nutrition services.
In addition, the association said, about 80 teachers and aides working for the program in West Virginia have already been laid off as a result.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, in addition to members of the American Federation of Teachers, stood outside the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse on Thursday to fight for the preservation of Head Start in the state.
People held signs with phrases like "Education, not sequestration" and "Empty chairs, full jails."
Rahall said he's "fighting hard in Washington" for the state's early education, and said programs like Head Start are crucial to giving every child in West Virginia a fair shot.
The cutbacks will "undoubtedly leave our children at a disadvantage when it comes to finding long-term academic success and a well-paying job," he said.
Nationwide, the funding cuts mean a loss of services for more than 57,000 low-income children, the Head Start association said.
West Virginia's children will still have access to preschool, though, because of new universal preschool legislation that, last fall, gave parents of all 4-year-olds the option to send their child to preschool every day. State-funded preschool has been offered for more than a decade.
Deeper cuts to Head Start programs are expected for 2014, and many sites already have been forced to end transportation services -- meaning for those who do qualify, they might not be able to get there.
Poore urged those in attendance Thursday to reach out to their local representatives and school boards to make funding for Head Start a priority, saying it boosts academic achievement and allows all children a chance to excel, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
"Our children don't have a party affiliation. They're children," she said. "One thing we will not tolerate is our children suffering."
Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.