Early Childhood

As Head Start Quality Push Continues, Advocates Raise Red Flag on Equity

By Evie Blad — December 01, 2022 2 min read
A multi-ethnic group of preschool students is sitting with their legs crossed on the floor in their classroom. The mixed-race female teacher is sitting on the floor facing the children. The happy kids are smiling and following the teacher's instructions. They have their arms raised in the air.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Early Childhood Preschool Studies Show Lagging Results. Why?
Researchers try to figure out why modern preschool programs are less effective than the landmark projects in the 1960s and 70s.
7 min read
Black female teacher and group of kids coloring during art class at preschool.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
Early Childhood What the Research Says A New Study Shows How Schools Can Maximize Full-Day Pre-K's Benefits
Researchers said principals played a key role in students' academic success through 3rd grade.
6 min read
Teacher Honi Allen, right, supervises as children test how far they can jump at the St. John's Preschool in American Falls, Idaho, on Sept. 28, 2023.
Teacher Honi Allen, right, supervises as children test how far they can jump at the St. John's Preschool in American Falls, Idaho, on Sept. 28, 2023.
Kyle Green/AP
Early Childhood What's Behind the Gaps in Early Intervention Services—And What It Means for K-12 Schools
The GAO says better data could help remove barriers to accessing early intervention services.
3 min read
Close crop of the back of a pre-school girl's head showing her playing with foam puzzle pieces of shapes and numbers.
iStock/Getty
Early Childhood What the Research Says 6 Challenges for Early Educators as Preschool Growth Halts
School enrollment for the nation’s youngest learners has nosedived—and could cause long-term problems.
4 min read
Close crop of the back of a pre-school girl's head showing her playing with foam puzzle pieces of shapes and numbers.
iStock/Getty