The Office of Head Start last week released a final version of the performance standards that will require many of the federal preschool programs to offer a longer day and year to children within five years.
The standards were last revised in 1975. Congress directed Head Start to update its rules when it reauthorized the program in 2007. The office, which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, released proposed rules in June 2015. The final rules lay out guidelines that federal officials say will raise professional-development requirements and Head Start educational standards, while cutting through the red tape that centers currently must wrestle with. Prior to this revision, Head Start had 1,400 regulatory standards, and the number of standards has been cut by 30 percent.
The major shift—and the one that comes with the biggest price tag—is the change in Head Start operating hours. Currently, a Head Start program must operate for at least 3½ hours a day and 128 days a year, the equivalent of 448 hours a year. The new rules will increase that to at least 1,020 hours a year for Head Start and 1,380 hours a year for center-based Early Head Start programs, which serve infants through age 3. The new rules set no specific day-length or year requirement, and programs have until August 2021 to make a change.
Head Start’s original proposal would have required individual programs to run for at least six hours a day and 180 days per year, or the equivalent of 1,080 hours per year.
But many programs that run double sessions to increase the number of children with access balked at that idea. “By changing our program to five full days, half of our children will be without a classroom and an opportunity to grow,” said one commenter during the public-comment period.
The sweeping overhaul, which goes into effect 60 days after the rules are published in the Federal Register, estimates the cost of expanding Head Start operating hours to be about $1 billion more than the $8.6 billion already allocated to Head Start. In fiscal 2016, Congress appropriated $294 million to increase the number of children attending Head Start for a full school day and year. President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget proposal requests an additional $292 million for Head Start.
If Congress doesn’t come through with the money, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services has the authority to modify the requirements.
The standards also reaffirm the program’s commitment to serving English-language learners, children with disabilities, and vulnerable children. For example, they require that programs provide necessary supportive services for children who have delays significant enough to interfere with school success, but who are not eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The standards require that programs also actively recruit children in foster care and those who are homeless.
They do not change the process started in 2011 that requires lower-performing Head Start programs to compete for continued federal funding. That program is called the designation-renewal system, and ultimately, all Head Start programs will be moving to five-year grant cycles, as opposed to the open-ended funding that existed before that change.
The new rules met with measured approval from Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., the chairman of the early-childhood, elementary and secondary education subcommittee. They released a joint statement that said, “While we are encouraged the department appears to have taken into account some of the concerns we and others raised with its initial regulatory proposal, we continue to question some of the policies in the final rule.” They said they will “carefully review the rule to ensure it results in the kind of responsible support children and their families need.”
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House education committee, said that the new rules give children more learning time and parents more opportunity for job stability because the longer operating hours will cover more of a typical workday.
“But make no mistake, high-quality early-learning environments are not cheap, and many providers will need additional resources to implement certain requirements, such as extending the learning day,” he added. “As we consider budget priorities, Congress will need to fully fund Head Start programs around the country.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2016 edition of Education Week as Longer Day, Year Required for Many Head Start Programs