Why Head Start Will Work…If K-12 Education Improves [Opinion]

While various initiatives have tried to reduce Head Start funding by pointing to K–12 results, the problem may lie outside the preschool program itself.

Funding options for California education continue to improve on many levels, including restored federal funds for the state’s “Head Start” and “Early Head Start” programs.

The Head Start Programs, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, offer a combination of free preschool education and integrated social support services for low-income children and families. They provide full- and half-day early childhood education for kids who are 3–4 years old (and for Early Head Start, 0–3 years), along with additional health and family resources. The purpose of these programs is to support family stability and establish a positive environment for early childhood development.

Although federally funded, the program allows for local control. Eligibility is income-based, (families must earn less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $11,770 for a single person plus $4,160 for every additional member of the household in most states), but local versions of the program may determine other means of eligibility, such as special needs, disabilities of children or their family members, even mental health needs.

Head Start is one of the oldest programs in America that attempts to mitigate systemic poverty. Launched as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in 1965, the program celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

As an interesting side note, Head Start (with the help of the Carnegie Foundation) was the launch pad for a television series that has enhanced education for generations: “Sesame Street.”

Financial Losses for Head Start Funding

In March 2013, Congress, stuck at an impasse, allowed a nasty federal budget sequester to go into effect. This resulted in significant financial losses for over a year to Head Start funding across the nation. Rick Mockler, executive director of the California Head Start Association, said that about 5 percent of children in his state’s program lost their spots as a result.

“We lost close to a year’s worth of funding for 5 percent of the children. Thousands of children in the state didn’t have services; most of them were four-year-olds who missed nearly a year of preschool.”

Congress has since removed budget caps through September of 2015, so, for now at least, funding is restored.

California will receive $65 million in federal grants this year to boost Head Start Program enrollment. In addition, other grants are expected to come in that will create 2,000 more spots than existed even before the budget sequester.

Here in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, there are some areas that are starkly, extremely rural. Geography in these areas makes it all too easy for impoverished families and children to become physically and socially isolated. I’ve seen firsthand the positive results that children and families in these communities receive both through Head Start and through its local partnerships. Nine rural counties in Northern California will be receiving additional funding from Early Head Start in particular, which is great news.

Criticism of Head Start

The debate, however, continues over whether Head Start and Early Head Start are worth the federal investment in the long-term. Critics refer to “Head Start Fade” — where studies show that initial, significant improvements for children tend to fade rapidly as they enter K–12 schools.

This effect doesn’t surprise me. The weak link in the education process is not Head Start, but rather public K–12 systems. If we do nothing to change how we run K–12 education, investments in preschool and even investments in free higher education will be wasted.

Current K–12 American public education simply cannot continue the way it does now. Even if we can give 0–4-year-olds the best we have, involve their parents, and offer additional support, all of those efforts are lost if these children then end up shuttled into low-performing schools with apathetic instructors a few years down the road.

We still have time to make the Head Start program work well. Many ideas are on the table, although most are systematically shot down by union, not teacher, interests. It would serve all parties in education to try some of these ideas out, and then debate the quality of benefits over time, with real data and accountable standards. Even when methods turn out to be imperfect, we will still have the data to share, pointing to the vulnerabilities — and with teamwork, those weaknesses won’t be the whole system itself.

We should all make a better effort to collaborate to give kids a better shot than they currently have now. As FDR said, “Try something.”

Follow this link to learn more about the different preschool options available in your area.

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