A new study on Head Start finds the federal program falls far short of its goal of providing high-quality services to all young children who need them and that there are “fundamental and difficult to understand disparities across states” in access, funding and quality even though it is a federal program with uniform national standards and goals.

The study on Head Start —  created to provide education, nutrition and health services to low-income children and their families —  was done by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, says in part:

We find fundamental and difficult to understand disparities across states in access. For example, the percent of low-income 3- and 4-year-old children served in each state varies from 7 percent in Nevada to 49 percent in Mississippi. The percent of low-income infant and toddlers served varies from just over 1 percent in Nevada to almost 8 percent in the District of Columbia. Focusing on only children living in poverty, in Nevada, a number equal to 16 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in poverty were enrolled, compared to 100 percent in North Dakota. Under age 3 the number enrolled as a percent of children in poverty ranged from 2.7 percent in Nevada to 13 percent in the District of Columbia.

Here’s a post on the study and about the future of Head Start, by Steven Barnett, a Board of Governors Professor and director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers. His research includes studies of the economics of early care and education including costs and benefits, the long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development, and the distribution of educational opportunities. Dr. Barnett earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Michigan. He has authored or co-authored over 180 publications. He is co-author, along with Allison Friedman-Krauss Ph.D., of the State(s) of Head Start report.

By W. Steven Barnett

The first five years of life can set children on a path toward success — or failure  – in school and beyond.  Understanding the unique importance of these early years, the federal government in 1965 launched Head Start to boost the learning and development of young children disadvantaged by poverty.  But in order to achieve this ambitious goal, Head Start must be able to deliver high-quality services to all the children who need it.

Yet, our new study finds Head Start falls far short of this goal. Despite important progress over the past 8 years, nationwide Head Start enrolls less than half the intended children and families — and even this spotty access is highly unequal.

Our report, “State(s) of Head Start,” finds the program has never been funded adequately, forcing national and local program administrators to trade-off enrollment against hours and quality, and preventing the program from expanding to serve all children in need regardless of where they live.

As a result, poor families seeking a Head Start for their young children find themselves facing a lottery in which most of them hold a losing ticket, and the odds of winning vary dramatically depending on where they live. In Nevada, a poor 3- or 4-year-old has less than a one-in-five chance of attending Head Start, while in other states a poor child’s chances are better than one-in-two, and in some states, the odds are perhaps even close to 100 percent.

The inequity doesn’t stop with access. It also affects the quality and hours of services that children and families receive. On average, programs in New York and Oregon spent roughly $10,000 per child enrolled, while programs in Arkansas and Oklahoma spent less than $6,700 per child, greater differences than can be explained by differences in the cost of living. In some states, nearly every Head Start child attends for a full school day, five days a week; but in others a full school-day schedule is rare. There are similarly inexplicable discrepancies across teacher training, teacher pay, and other indicators of quality.  Early Head Start, which serves children under age three, is hampered by the same kinds of disparities, but serves far fewer children and families anywhere. Early Head Start enrollment ranges from less than three percent of the number in poverty in Tennessee, Texas, and Nevada, to more than 10 percent in DC, North Dakota, Vermont, and Montana.

Head Start needs a fresh start.  We call for an independent bipartisan national commission to develop specific recommendations, but the broad path forward is clear. Streamline regulations.  Increase innovation. Expand access where most needed and prioritize those with greatest needs.  Strengthen local and state government partnerships.

But let me be clear:  I am not advocating lower standards. Head Start should continue holding programs to high standards regarding teacher training, classroom quality and duration, for example. It is to Head Start’s credit that a uniform measure of classroom quality is applied to all programs as a guide to program improvement. Like a GPS, this measure tells each program where it is on the path toward high quality.

But the standards that matter most can be set out in 20 pages — not 200. And local programs need greater freedom to innovate, as long as they can demonstrate strong gains for children.  At the same time, the federal Head Start agency must continue collecting the kinds of detailed data we share in our report, especially observations of quality in every program, to guarantee genuine accountability for producing the improved results a fresh start seeks.

Finally, no reform can compensate for inadequate funding. The federal government should provide additional dollars dedicated to states with the lowest allocations relative to the needs of their children.

At the same time, Head Start should partner with other federal, state and local agencies funding programs for young children and their families to develop common standards and decide how much each agency will contribute to meet those standards for all eligible children. For those under three, the federal government should set strict priorities for children in the most adverse circumstances since even doubling Early Head Start funding would be too little to reach just 10 percent of the under-three-year-olds  in poverty.

Our government is at a time of transition — and this is a prime opportunity to recommit to our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens. It’s time to restart the conversation about how we can best support the early learning and development needs of every child. Realizing the promise of Head Start will require bold action from parents, educators, and all levels of government — but our children are worth the effort.

Here’s the full report: