There may not be a bigger booster of the federal Head Start program than Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan.
“Without these support systems early on in my life, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to imagine that I would not be here today,” the mayor said Wednesday at an outdoor news conference designed to draw attention to the federal sequester budget cuts that have dragged on for nearly four weeks.
Callahan defined himself as “a Head Start kid.” Callahan had a speech impediment as he entered kindergarten. But with the help of Head Start, the mayor said, he had worked through his problems and was entering a gifted pupils program by the third grade.
If the sequester continues, as many as 100 children in the Lehigh Valley could lose their place in the program that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families, according to Allentown-based Community Services for Children.
“These cuts would have a devastating effect on a kid like me,” Callahan said.
Callahan was joined at Payrow Plaza by Bethlehem Area School Board President Michael Faccinetto, City Councilwoman Karen Dolan and Lorna Velazquez, executive director of the Bethlehem-based Hispanic Center of the Lehigh Valley. The media event was organized by the progressive Keystone Progress organization.
The automatic cuts to federal education spending were the primary focus of the discussion.
Faccinetto said the Bethlehem Area School District could lose 10 percent of its funding for a cluster of programs designed to provide assistance to low-income students—much of which pays for salaries and benefits of teachers who provide the services.
“We are facing more layoffs if the sequestration is allowed to run its course,” Faccinetto said.
“Any reduction … will have a drastic effect on our neediest students,” he said. “It will be extremely difficult to continue these services as they exist today with a cut in federal funding.
“If we are able to sustain them at current levels, it will be another blow to local taxpayers who more and more are being forced to step in when it is the responsibility of the state and federal government to properly fund public education.”
Faccinetto and Dolan also decried losses to vocational, technical and job training. A loss of $460 million to this funding will mean more than 45,000 children and adults in Pennsylvania will lose access to job training, Dolan said.
Velazquez said the sequestration cuts threaten the 2,500 people her center serves through WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
The federal program provides for health care and nutrition of low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and infants and children under the age of 5.
Most of the people who benefit from the program are from poor, hard-working families and “not the lazy” like many have been led to believe, she said.
It is not yet clear how severe the impact might be on local WIC families or on the Hispanic Senior Center, which provides two hot meals a day and education and activities for about 40 people, Velazquez said.
“How will the sequestration affect the HCLV?” she said. “We’re going to have less money and an increase in the need for services.”