Head Start, the federal program that provides education, nutrition and health services to low-income children and their families, is not adequately funded and is administered so differently from state to state that children do not benefit equally, according to a new report from the National Institute for Early Education Research.
The 478-page report, “State(s) of Head Start,” released Wednesday, calls for a near tripling of the program’s budget — to more than $20 billion — to fully meet its goals for serving 3- and 4-year-old children living in poverty. It also points to wide gaps in Head Start programs related to quality of instruction, amount of instruction, access to programs and levels of funding.
“Despite decades of bipartisan support for Head Start, we conclude that the program suffers from inadequate overall public investment,” the report’s authors wrote. “Simply put, the program is not funded at a level that would make it possible to provide child development services of sufficient quality and duration to achieve its goals while serving all eligible children even at ages 3 and 4, much less for those under age 3.”
The report, which compiled program data from 50 states, the District of Columbia and six territories, provides a deeper understanding of who Head Start serves and where it operates best, said Steven Barnett, executive director of NIEER and one of the study’s authors. But it also makes clear, he says, how and where the program has fallen short.
“The percentage of poor kids that Head Start serves nationally could be as low as a quarter, meaning that 75 percent of the children in poverty are not getting Head Start,” Barnett said in an interview. “I don’t think people understand that. And then if you say that the intended population is not just kids who are poor, but kids who are near-poor, then I think people don’t understand that that’s half the children in the country.”
The report arrives as Donald Trump prepares to step into the White House amid uncertainty about funding priorities in the new administration. The Health and Human Services Department, which is expected to be led by Trump’s nominee, Tom Price (R-Georgia), runs Head Start.
Barnett said that while there are questions about the new administration’s plans, he believes there is reason to be optimistic.
“Head Start has been moving in the right direction,” Barnett said. “Certainly there are some folks who are worried that the new administration might not recognize that. But I also think this is an administration that’s willing to take bold steps and see if you could go beyond staying the course and really trying to figure out how do we get all of those local, state and federal programs together to serve the same population of low-income kids and make sure we deliver higher quality with more equal access.”
The report calls for a bipartisan commission of policymakers, researchers and educators to look at how Head Start, which President Lyndon Johnson established in 1965 as part of his “War on Poverty,” can meet its mandate to serve children in poverty.
“We feel everybody is going to have to come to the table,” Barnett said. “This is not an easy problem. It’s not just a matter of saying you should just appropriate $14 billion more. I don’t think anyone thinks that’s going to happen.”
But the report does make clear that additional investments are necessary to ensure that “every eligible child has an equal opportunity to attend a high-quality, effective Head Start program.”