Image courtesy of Tiffany DeWitt.

One of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes has canceled about $6.8 million in state funding for Head Start, an early childhood education program. That could end Alaska’s low-income prekindergarten program as early as this year.

Haines Head Start teacher and director Tiffany DeWitt pulls up a video of three to five-year-olds singing their ABC’s. She says her students don’t learn anything by rote memorization, but they usually enter kindergarten knowing the the alphabet and numbers to 100.

“We scored the highest in the state of Alaska for kindergarten readiness, which was a really big deal. So our programs are working,” she said.

Head Start is not like other preschools. It’s aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty, so the program takes low-income families first. It offers access to health care and nutritious meals.

The program has been around since 1965, but Governor Mike Dunleavy wants to de-fund it. That jeopardizes the federal fundingtaht makes the program possible.

It’s free for everyone. DeWitt says that helps a number of low-income local families.

“We have families really suffering,” she said.

“And without a program like Head Start, it’d be very detrimental. Then you’re putting kids in kindergarten that might not be ready to be there. Kids then are being labeled as behavior problems when its just a mistaken behavior.”

In September, she’ll start her fifth year with Head Start. Despite the looming funding cut that would dismantle the program, her classroom plans to expand. They’re more than doubling their weekly hours, so families can secure more work while their kids are in class.

That’s only if Rural Alaska Community Action Program (RuralCAP), the program that administers Head Start in Haines, gets a waiver from the federal government.

“If we do not get it, then our full funding for all of our Head Starts disappears,” said RuralCAP CEO Patrick Anderson.

He says the best case scenario for the program’s survival will still mean shutting down almost half of RuralCAP’s Head Start classrooms. About a dozen will close, ending the service to nearly 250 children and costing sixty-five rural jobs.

And that’s just the Head Start programs that RuralCAP oversees. Statewide, Head Start serves three thousand kids across 100 communities.

Anderson says Rural CAP is looking for other sources of money to secure the federal match, so they can continue operating after the waiver expires.

“We can use parent volunteers and at a hourly rate for the amount of time they spend in there. But quite obviously, to make up $2.6 million it would require a lot more than just parental volunteering.”

If RuralCAP gets a waiver Haines won’t lose services next year, but after that its future is uncertain.

That uncertainty has teachers like DeWitt considering their options.

“Honestly, if I didn’t love my families and children so much, I would probably be looking for other work. As a single mom, I can’t really take those chances. I’m the only one that supports our household. So it’s really, really scary. It’s more scary for the families that really need us,” she said.

Services will be cut if the state legislature does not override the governor’s veto by Friday. RuralCAP is in the process of applying for the federal waiver.