'Worthy job, worthless pay'

Fighting for better Head Start funding

 

What’s not to love about Head Start? Ever since Congress created it in 1965, this early childhood education and health program has been widely hailed as a miracle worker.


Study after study shows that Head Start students are more likely to graduate from high school and become productive citizens. They’re less likely to need special education, become pregnant teens, or commit a crime. Head Start increases family stability and self-reliance and lowers dependence on welfare.


The icing on the cake: every dollar spent on Head Start and Early Head Start saves taxpayers almost $9 in remedial services and other costs.


Yet for many Head Start employees—the folks who work these miracles—the pay is so low that they qualify for welfare themselves. As MEA-MFT Marcia Barfknecht, a Helena Head Start teacher, said, "It's a worthy job with worthless pay."


MEA-MFT hoped to begin turning this situation around during the 2009 Montana Legislature with House Bill 369, a bill that would provide state funding for Montana’s Head Start programs for the first time ever.


Head Start programs depend on federal funding, with local matching money required. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration cut Head Start funding in the last few years, forcing many Head Start programs to freeze salaries and cut services. Although every Head Start in the state has a long waiting list, some programs are considering cutting enrollment.


Montana’s average Head Start teacher salary is around $19,000 a year. Support staff such as aides and cooks make even less. Head Start employees often have no health insurance.


“I really believe in Head Start,” said Belgrade Head Start teacher and MEA-MFT member Erin Walters. “I believe we are crucial to the community. The children who come here need us and love being here. But we don’t get paid enough for what we do.”


“It’s a demanding job with low wages,” said Belgrade Head Start teacher Patty Holm, president of her local MEA-MFT union. “You can make more flipping burgers at McDonald’s or cleaning houses, yet we are working with children, our most precious resource.”


House Bill 369, sponsored by Rep. Edie McClafferty (D-Butte), an MEA-MFT member, would provide $300 per student in state money to every Head Start program in Montana. Unlike many states, Montana has never spent state money on Head Start programs.

 

Unfortunately, the bill died in committe on a tied party line vote, with all Democrats voting in favor, all Republicans opposed.

 

MEA-MFT will be back at the legislature with this in two years!