Much of the expanding policy conversation around early childhood education has revolved around state pre-K. Head Start, the country’s largest early education program, has been somewhat left out of the conversation. Providing approximately one million children from low-income families with comprehensive services, Head Start can play a pivotal role in the lives of many youngsters. When implemented well, Head Start can be a high-quality pre-K model. However, the program has its critics and has seen many quality-improvement efforts over the past 50 years—designation renewal is the most recent.

The expansion of public pre-K in many states raises questions about the appropriate role for Head Start. In her newly released report, Sara Mead, a Principal with Bellwether Education Partners, suggests reforms that would increase program effectiveness and allow Head Start to adapt to recent changes in the early education space. (Full disclosure: Sara Mead is former director of the Early Education Initiative at New America.) One of Mead’s recommendations is similar to what we put forth in our recent paper Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Education. It is time to rethink states’ role in Head Start.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gives Head Start grants directly to thousands of local providers, bypassing state agencies. Mead points out how rare it is for the federal government to have such significant operational control. The Job Corps program is most similar but it is much smaller than Head Start. While this structure might have seemed viable when Head Start was created almost 50 years ago, Mead explains, “Head Start’s federal-local structure is mismatched to the early childhood and education landscape that exists today.”

Experimenting with giving Head Start grants to states could help to create a more cohesive early education system. Mead acknowledges this in her paper, and we agree. However, few states are in a position to deliver Head Start effectively, so she suggests running a pilot in which only states that “meet a very rigorous set of criteria demonstrating both a historic track record of supporting quality early childhood education and forward-looking plan to expand access to high-quality services” receive state grants. (In addition to these pilot grants to states, Head Start would continue to operate under the current federal-to-local model as well.) Among the recommended criteria Mead puts forth, importantly, she calls for states to have a plan to use this opportunity as part of a broader PreK-12 strategy that would include:

  • increasing access to high-quality early education opportunities for children from low-income families;
  • connecting and coordinating early education and K-12 systems; and
  • improving school readiness and other outcomes for children and their families.

Mead also recognizes the importance of requiring states to commit additional financial resources to implementation and to holding states accountable for “maintenance of effort,” so as not to encourage divestment in their own financial commitment to early education.

Mead suggests that fewer than five states could currently meet the suggested criteria she lays out in the short term. However, she, like us, recognizes the value in experimenting with a larger state role for Head Start.

In Beyond Subprime Learning, we also recommend that Head Start’s administration should work more closely with the US Department of Education. Over the years, Head Start for three-to-five-year-olds has become increasingly focused on school teaching and learning. The Departments of Health and Human Services and Education could reduce duplication and create efficiencies by bringing Head Start closer to other federal and state pre-K programs. This could also promote better alignment with special education and Title I programs that serve much of the same population as Head Start. Additionally, Head Start’s strengths, such as its whole-child approach, should be embraced and brought up into the K-3 grades.

Increasing state involvement in Head Start is not necessarily a new idea. Yet program advocates have largely opposed such proposals in the past, perhaps because it often comes as part of a plan to block grant Head Start funding. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) proposed this a few weeks ago in his plan to address poverty. Head Start supporters fear that this would ultimately decrease funding for the program, either at the federal or state level. Block grants are often seen as a method to stabilize and/or decrease federal funding. And even if block granting did not decrease federal funding, there is a credible fear that states receiving Head Start grants would disinvest in pre-K, using the money as a substitute, rather than a supplement, to existing pre-K funding. Mead offers a more in-depth explanationfor why block granting Head Start does not effectively address the existing issues with the program.

Both Bellwether and New America’s proposals acknowledge the need to implement reforms with caution, so that state-level grants improve Head Start and better connect it to state-funded pre-K programs. Giving Head Start grants directly to states has the potential to increase their capacity to expand access and improve quality of existing robust systems.

Mead also provides useful background on Head Start and makes smart recommendations for its future. It is definitely worth a read.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Laura Bornfreund

Laura Bornfreund is deputy director for New America's Early Education Initiative. Before joining New America, Ms. Bornfreund consulted for a number of education policy organizations including the Forum for Education & Democracy, Institute for Educational Leadership, and Common Core. She began her career as a 4th grade teacher. Ms. Bornfreund holds a master's degree in public administration from the University of Central Florida.