An Alaska nonprofit organization that provides early education and family programs will continue to advocate for needed funding after Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed more than $200 million from the 2024 state budget.
Get information about upcoming events, insight from key stakeholders, and state-specific reporting delivered to your inbox!
CCS Early Learning Executive Director Mark Lackey successfully advocated to get an additional $5 million for the Head Start program in the budget during the legislative session. But that amount was decreased after Dunleavy slashed more than $200 million from the budget, including many cuts to educational initiatives.
Dunleavy’s 46 line-item vetoes to the budget on June 19th included $3.5 million for Head Start, which means it will only get an additional $1.5 million. The budget’s statement of objection for the move states that it was done to “preserve general funds for savings and fiscal stability.” Lackey was disappointed by the move.
“The governor has partial or full line-item veto power. The legislative budget he received did have a $5 million increase in it because we did work to convince a majority in both the House and Senate that it was urgent and necessary. On June 19th, it was announced that he used his line-item veto for $3.5 million of what the legislature had put into their budget. So far, he has not given reasons for this veto, or for the others he included prior to signing. We are incredibly disappointed, but will continue advocating.”
— Mark Lackey, executive director, CCS Early Learning
CCS Early Learning offers Head Start programs in Wasilla, Palmer, Meadow Lakes, and Fairview Center. The national program provides comprehensive child development services to economically disadvantaged children and families.
“Head Start is primarily federally funded, and it is federally governed and regulated,” Lackey said. “We are charged with serving children and families who need early childhood assistance the most. This includes children who are in foster care, children whose families are homeless, and children whose families are low-income. In Alaska, a family of four with income less than $34,690 is eligible for our services.”
One out of every two children enrolled at CCS Early Learning last year was either in foster care or homeless, Lackey said. The other half were eligible for the program based on income.
“These children and families need all the support they can get because they are in ongoing, challenging life situations,” Lackey said. “Our staff (becomes) a source of stability, and an important source of support in their lives.”
The funding that was slashed from the budget would have increased wages and benefits for staff at CCS Early Learning, Lackey said.
“We are in a crisis of recruitment, retention, [and] hiring. Early childhood wages, in general, are among the lowest in the nation. Currently, employees in our entry-level positions (substitute teachers, teacher’s aides) who are responsible for child safety and helping children learn and progress through their developmental continuum can make more money working in an entry-level retail job, stocking shelves or bringing grocery carts into the store.”
Staff working in the most advanced positions (teachers who hold bachelor’s degrees) at CCS Early Learning don’t make nearly as much money as teachers with bachelor’s degrees in the local school district, Lackey said.
“Our benefits aren’t even in the same ballpark as the school district,” he said. “Largely due to these issues, for a couple years now, CCS Early Learning and many other programs in our state have not been able to be fully staffed. When we can’t hire or retain enough people, we can’t serve as many children as our programs are required to by our grant agreements.
When we can’t serve children in our community, it means that 50 percent of the children we don’t serve are homeless or in foster care. Or the lowest-income members of our community can’t place their children into a safe, high-quality learning environment that allows them to participate in the workforce.”
Seven out of the 17 Head Start grantees in Alaska have received notice from the federal government that they are under-enrolled, and have 12 months to correct the issue, Lackey said.
“If they do not, federal funding and/or services to children will be reduced,” he said. “Our services are foundational for community health, as far upstream as community work can go. We provide important prevention services to [the] youngest members of our community who are most at risk due to poverty or early trauma.”
Lackey hopes lawmakers will continue to focus on educational initiatives in the future.
“Education, in general, was a big topic [during the last session], and got a lot of attention from the legislature,” he said. “However, it also was the area that received the most attention from the governor’s line-item veto. I hope the legislature and the governor will revisit educational issues, especially early childhood education.”
CCS Early Learning plans to further its progress in treating those who have been impacted by trauma, Lackey said.
“Our organization has done a tremendous amount of work in training our staff and the parents we serve about the importance and the power of preventing adverse childhood experiences, and how important it is that we respond to all children and adults using a trauma-informed lens,” he said. “This work is extremely important, and will be an ongoing area of focus for us as we continue working to recruit, retain, and retrain new staff members.”