Inadequate funding forces Head Start providers to choose between improving the quality of their programs and enrolling a greater number of children to meet demand—a difficult conundrum for a program meant to improve outcomes for children in poverty.
That’s the conclusion of a new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Its authors conclude that Congress should reauthorize Head Start and Early Head Start programs and double current funding to boost their effectiveness.
“We are missing big opportunities to create a more level playing field [for children in poverty] right at the beginning,” said Steve Barnett, the co-director of NIEER, an advocacy and research organization.
The findings come as K-12 educators face the duel challenge of helping existing students make up for interrupted academics during the pandemic while also setting the academic foundations for incoming kindergartners.
The $10 billion Head Start and Early Head Start programs serve children from families with income below the federal poverty level during their preschool years. The NIEER findings about equity and access come after efforts in the last 15 years to improve the quality of the programs so that they can better prepare children to succeed in K-12 schools.
A 2007 congressional reauthorization of the programs expanded demand by allowing up to 35 percent of enrolled children to come from families with slightly higher incomes—up to 130 percent of the poverty level. That law, called the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act, also raised qualifications for Head Start teachers and pushed for full-day, rather than half-day, programs. Regulations in 2016 called for additional relevant teacher training.
But efforts to improve quality increased the cost of local programs, Barnett said. For example, teachers with bachelors degrees may require higher salaries than their peers without them. And, without a surge of additional federal funding, providers struggled to cover those expenses while also providing adequate seats to serve the need in their communities.
Head Start enrolled 41 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in poverty during the 2018-19 academic year, a number that dropped to 30 percent in 2020-21, as total enrollment dropped nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, NIEER found.
Compounding equity concerns: NIEER found wide state-by-state variations in program quality and enrollment. In 2020-21, just three states’ Head Start programs served at least 50 percent of eligible children in poverty: Mississippi, Montana, and North Dakota. The analysis also found quality differences in how many hours of programming were provided to enrolled children, teacher qualifications, and employee turnover.
And in the five states with the highest percent of children in poverty—Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia—Head Start’s average per-child federal funding was $1,590 less than per-child funding in the five states with the lowest child-poverty levels—Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Utah, NIEER found.
The authors recommend that Congress boost funding for Head Start and Early Head Start by $10 billion over four years to close gaps in enrollment between states.