CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's Head Start preschool program is no longer available in every county due to federal budget cuts, state officials said Tuesday.
The federally funded program helps prepare low-income children for elementary school and also provides them with meals and health care. The programs are a legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1960s war on poverty.
But because of automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration, 461 classroom spots were eliminated in West Virginia. There were 8,075 children enrolled in Head Start in West Virginia in the 2012 fiscal year, according to federal figures.
The cuts were put in place after Congress and the White House failed to reach agreement two years ago on a plan to cut the federal deficit. Funding for the program is provided in the form of grants to 21 local community organizations.
Traci Dalton, director of West Virginia's Head Start Collaboration Office, told lawmakers during a legislative interim meeting that the cuts meant that the program had to be eliminated in Tucker County. Previously, all 55 West Virginia counties had Head Start programs in them.
Nationwide, more than 57,000 spots for children were eliminated. Dalton said West Virginia is better off than some other states because it offers a universal preschool program for 4-year-old children, and some of those who would have gone to Head Start likely enrolled in that program.
"We're glad they're being served somewhere, however there are services that are being lost to those families," she said. "The health component, I mean, we have staff that are driving children to the dentist, taking families and making sure they're getting their immunizations. <t40>...<t$> Those are the types of services that are being lost."
But Dalton also warned that another round of sequestration would likely mean more cuts. So far, 80 Head Start positions have been eliminated, she said.
West Virginia Head Start programs receive about $55 million, down from $58 million before sequestration.
Dalton did not have an estimate on exactly how many children would be impacted or in which counties if sequestration continues. She said the average cost for each child enrolled in Head Start in West Virginia is about $7,200.
Dalton encouraged lawmakers to contact the state's congressional delegation to get funding restored.