Democratic Principles for Head Start

For Immediate Release:

July 16, 2003

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Expanding Access - Improving Quality - Promoting School Readiness

Access

Fully-fund Head Start over five years to expand access to all eligible preschoolers

Expand Early Head Start (EHS) to serve more infants and toddler

Improve access to Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS)

Improve flexibility of Head Start programs to meet community needs

Quality

Improve teacher quality by requiring more teachers have bachelor’s degrees and making sure Head Start teachers are properly compensated so they remain with Head Start

Strengthen the monitoring and evaluation of Head Start programs to improve program accountability

School Readiness 

Enhance Head Start’s focus on pre-literacy, language and pre-math skills

Improve coordination between Head Start and local schools to better align standards and improve transition to kindergarten

Strengthen coordination between Head Start and state early education programs

Background

Head Start, started in 1964 under President Johnson, is a highly successful comprehensive early education and child development program for low-income children, and their families.  Head Start serves children ages 3-5, Early Head Start serves infants and toddlers birth through two years as well as pregnant women, and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start serves children, birth to five years old, of migrant and seasonal farm workers.  Head Start currently serves over 900,000 children and families with the goal of helping children reach school ready to succeed.  Head Start programs are directly funded by the federal government and must meet numerous specific federal program performance standards.  It is this combination of local control with strong federal quality standards that has helped make Head Start highly successful.  In addition to providing research-based academic curricula which teaches reading, writing, mathematics and language skills, Head Start also provides an array of comprehensive services proven to increase school readiness, such as health and mental health screenings and services, nutrition, dental and vision services, and extensive parent involvement and education. 

Head Start is one of the most evaluated education programs, and there is no doubt it has helped millions of children do better in school and achieve more in life.  Children who attend Head Start make gains in vocabulary, early writing, letter recognition and social behavior, and they enter school better prepared than low income children who do not attend Head Start.  Head Start students show increases in IQ scores, are less likely to need special education services, are less likely to repeat a grade, are less likely to commit crimes in adolescence, and are more likely to graduate from high school.  While Head Start does not eliminate the achievement gap between Head Start students and their more advantaged peers, child development and poverty experts explain that it is totally unrealistic to expect any one program to overcome the devastations of poverty.  Head Start is designed to give low income children the best possible education program to help them arrive at school more prepared than if they had not entered the program, and it unquestionably accomplishes this important goal.

This is an important time for Head Start.  The Bush Administration and House Republicans have introduced legislation (H.R. 2210) that will dismantle Head Start by turning it into a block grant.  Under the guise of improving child outcomes and state collaboration, the Republican legislation would block grant the program to eight states with unproven and untested preschool programs and would eliminate Head Start’s comprehensive standards, lower the quality of services, and minimize accountability.  The Republican bill represents a major attack low income children and families.

Instead of dismantling a successful program, House Democrats believe the focus should be on keeping the Head Start program intact and strengthening the program so this country’s poorest children can receive the high quality, comprehensive early education they need to achieve in school and reach their full potential.

House Democrats support the following principles for this year’s reauthorization:

  • Fully-fund Head Start over five years to expand access to all eligible preschoolers.  Head Start serves children 3-5 whose family income is at or below the federal poverty line.  The 2003 poverty line for a family of 3 is $15,260.  Currently, only 6 of 10 eligible preschool children receive Head Start because of inadequate funding.  Despite the President’s claim that “We must make sure that every child enters school ready to learn - every child - not just one, not just a few, but every, single child,” the Republican budget for FY04 provides just enough money for Head Start to cover the cost of inflation, leaving hundreds of thousands of poor children unable to attend Head Start.  This Democratic priority was defeated in Committee on party lines. 
  • Improve teacher quality by requiring more teachers have bachelor’s degrees and making sure Head Start teachers are properly compensated so they remain with Head Start.  Increasing teacher quality in Head Start is the central element to improving overall program quality and helping more children reach kindergarten better prepared to succeed.  Research finds that teacher education is related to better outcomes in children’s cognitive, social and emotional development.  However, attracting high quality teachers to Head Start is difficult because Head Start teachers make about $21,000/year, half of what kindergarten teachers make.  In order to pay more than lip service to teacher quality, resources must be provided to raise teacher salaries and help teachers get the proper education.  This Democratic priority was defeated in Committee on party lines.
  • Improve access to Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS).  MSHS programs operate seasonally to meet the needs of children and families as they harvest crops, seeking to break the cycle of poverty created by moving from place to place by offering high quality child education programs for children ages birth to school entry age.  Currently, the program serves only 19% of children eligible for MSHS.  Increasing the set-aside for MSHS so that more eligible children may be served is important for making sure more eligible children benefit from this program.  This Democratic priority was defeated in Committee on party lines.
  • Expand access to Early Head Start (EHS) to serve more infants and toddlers.  EHS helps promote infant and toddler cognitive development and social interaction.  EHS also helps parents develop important parenting skills, such as reading and playing more with their children, which affects children’s school readiness.  However, EHS is only funded to serve 3% of eligible children.  Science shows that birth-to-three is a very important time in child development and more must be done to serve these infants and toddlers in need.  This Democratic priority was defeated in Committee on party lines.
  • Enhance Head Start’s focus on pre-literacy, language and pre-math skills.  Head Start academic performance standards ensure programs use proven curricula that develop children’s cognitive development and academic skills.  But since experts are learning more about best practices in early education, Head Start’s academic standards should be reviewed by an independent group of experts and guidelines should be developed for ensuring Head Start’s academic components incorporate the best scientific knowledge in early childhood education.  Programs also need a continued commitment to training and technical assistance to ensure all Head Start centers are providing the best early childhood education possible.
  • Strengthen coordination between Head Start and state early education programs.  Head Start programs currently collaborate with many types of state and local early education and child care programs.  Improving the mechanism for coordination and collaboration will help communities better serve children.  A Head Start State Collaboration office currently operates in every state.  Their role should be expanded to develop statewide plans for early education that improve efficiency between programs, align professional development and curriculum standards in order to promote school readiness; and assists the governor in convening a state level policy and planning advisory on coordination of early care and education. This Democratic priority was defeated in Committee on party lines.
  • Enhance coordination between Head Start and local schools to better align standards and improve transition to kindergarten.  Head Start programs and local education agencies should work closely together to develop compatible and appropriate standards and benchmarks for child achievement.  Better partnerships will help Head Start children transition into kindergarten and achieve more in school.
  • Improve outreach and services for LEP children and families.  LEP student enrollments increased in 42 states in the 2000 school year.  In 2002, five year-old students entered our school system speaking over 200 different languages (76% spoke Spanish).  These demographic trends underscore the need for federal efforts to help LEP children have access to early education programs that address the specific needs of LEP children and their families.  It is important that Head Start improves parent outreach and services for LEP parents as well as creates plans to most appropriately help LEP Head Start students reach school ready to succeed.
  • Strengthen the monitoring and evaluation of Head Start programs to improve program accountability.  HHS extensively reviews Head Start programs every three years.  However, monitoring should occur more frequently to ensure continual program quality.  Improvement plans should be more carefully monitored by HHS and programs with continuing problems should be provided better training and technical assistance and terminated where appropriate.
  • Improve flexibility of Head Start programs to meet community needs.  Many Head Start classrooms have long waiting lists and continually full enrollment.  But in some communities, programs have some on-going vacancies.  Head Start programs and DHHS need greater flexibility for coordination with community needs in such instances.  Head Start programs should be able to apply for permission to serve younger children or children from low-income families above the poverty line in instances where a local community needs assessment determines such flexibility would better serve the children and families in the community. 
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