WASHINGTON — Head Start is 50 years old this month, but the federal early-education program’s effectiveness and costs remain controversial among policymakers.
Lawmakers must reauthorize the program and that has sparked another debate over whether the Great Society-era initiative makes all the difference in the world for disadvantaged young learners or is just a government program whose popularity does not match actual results.
The witnesses present at a Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on Oct. 7 agreed that in order to ensure proper implementation of Head Start, adequate funding must be provided, teachers must be sufficiently paid, and government restrictions must be reduced.
In Maryland, there are 47 Head Start programs that serve over 10,000 children and expecting mothers, according to data compiled by the National Head Start Association.
Head Start is a national program for at-risk three-, four-, and five-year-olds, providing preschool, mental and physical health care, emotional support, and proper nutrition. Early Head Start is a similar program that helps pregnant women and infants from birth until three.
Obama’s 2016 fiscal year budget plan calls for $10.1 billion to be allocated to Head Start, an increase from last year to expand the preschool into a “full day, full year program.” The Senate’s budget proposal calls for $8.7 billion, a $100 million increase, and the House proposed $8.8 billion, a $192 million increase, according to Ortiz.
“All too often low-income families lack access to high quality, affordable, early education and these children tend to fall behind,” said committee ranking member Rep. Robert Scott, R-Va., at the hearing. Head Start is intended to bridge that accessibility gap.
Head Start values its mission to care for the “whole child” – which is why there is such a strong emphasis on social, emotional, and physical health. Head Start strongly urges parents to be actively engaged.
In order to accomplish that goal, parents can also receive help from Head Start, including access to professional training, access to GED programs, and drivers’ licenses.
Maryland families need to know there is a safe learning environment for their children, said Mónica Ortiz, executive director of the Maryland Head Start Association. There is no universal free preschool in Maryland, Ortiz said, so access to Head Start can be vital for children in poverty-stricken areas.
“A lot of the programs in Maryland have been providing services for a significant amount of time, the majority of them have been around longer than ten years. They know their communities well,” Ortiz said.
Each year Head Start programs are required to complete a community assessment to examine if they are meeting community needs –often looking at what languages are spoken, the economic environment, the presence of any drug issues, teen pregnancy, whether prisons are located in the community, if there are military families in the community and which family members are raising the young children.
“I think that the programs in Maryland do a really good job at taking that community assessment seriously,” Ortiz said. “The programs are very specific across the state, and they really know who is in the area.”
Committee chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said that children living in poverty may struggle in school, which can have long-term effects on their life.
“We know that a great education can be the great equalizer, but we also know some children have a tough time adapting to the pressures of school and that can be especially true of children living in poverty,” Committee Chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said at last week’s hearing. “Without the proper support, these children are more likely to fall behind in school and fall through the cracks later in life.”
Each individual Head Start program receives its own grant. Programs can be run through public schools, local community centers, or other non-profit organizations like YMCAs or Catholic Charities.
In 2014, Maryland received $91.8 million in federal funding for Head Start, according to its latest fiscal year data.
Maryland Head Start programs also receive state funding to supplement the federal grants.
“It’s a minimal amount of money but not every state does this for their program, so Maryland is very lucky that way,” said Ortiz. “Having the state dollars helps provide additional services and meet that federal funding requirement.”
The Obama administration and Head Start supporters both have pushed to extend the duration of the program from nine months to 12 months, in addition to extending the day. This does not apply to Early Head Start, as that program already allows for full-days for 12 months a year.
Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., expressed concerns at the meeting that having a longer day is not effective, as young children need naps and teachers would essentially be paid for “nap time.”
In order to adjust Head Start to become full-day, Ortiz noted that something would have to give—whether it is budget increases or the removal of additional services to provide for the longer hours.
“The big concern is that of course we want the kids to be getting more services but we want them to be developmentally appropriate,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz said that an estimated minimum of 160,000 children would lose their spots at Head Start in order to shift funds around to pay for longer days.
Some local and state governments match the federal government’s funding, and that whole structure could be compromised when adding longer hours to the day.
“It is a double-whammy, offsetting matching (funds) in order to extend the day means you might have to shift money away from other resources,” Ortiz said.
Access to programs like Head Start may help brain development in children, said Dr. Matthew Biel, division chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Georgetown University at the hearing.
“Early exposure to toxic stressers such as extreme poverty, abuse or neglect, or living with a parent with mental illness or substance abuse disrupts developing brain architecture,” Biel said.
In order to be enrolled, children and families must meet a certain set of at-risk indicators. This includes, but is not limited to, low income and community environment.
However, there was some concern from members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that Head Start does not have lasting positive influences on its participants.
The Department of Health and Human Resources released a study in 2012 that stated that by the time Head Start students reached third grade, there were little to no differences from their peers who did not attend Head Start.
Ortiz argued in a phone interview that this study is not definitive.
“The Head Start Impact Study has never been well-supported by the Head Start community, mostly because at that point they’ve been out of the Head Start setting for so long it’s not really appropriate to say that Head Start did not provide x, y or z,” Ortiz said.
Dr. Tim Nolan, CEO and executive director of National Centers for Learning Excellence with 46 years working at Head Start, said that public schools should continue the wholesome support that Head Start provides.
““We need to keep the support dosage up so those gains don’t evaporate,” Nolan said, suggesting that students should be followed with the same kind of care through early elementary school.
Ortiz also noted that long-term effects, such as percentage of students graduating high school, teen pregnancy rates, and incarceration rates are significantly better among Head Start children. Ortiz said that focus on social and emotional development has that lasting impact among Maryland Head Start students.
Ortiz also noted that it is difficult to track each Head Start child, as parents may not always indicate that their children were enrolled in Head Start when applying to kindergarten.
Nolan’s mantra was, “we should not seek to make Head Start more like the public schools, but make the public schools more like Head Start.”
However, this year the graduating Head Start students in Maryland did not do well on their readiness assessment. Ortiz credited that to a brand new assessment that was released, not to the students’ preparedness for kindergarten.
For Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director for the Office of Head Start in the Department of Health and Human Services, the program is much more than its statistical success.
“It means that no matter where you are born in America, the color of your skin, the language you speak, the state of your child and family, Head Start will be there to offer an opportunity to make your dreams come true,” Sanchez Fuentes said.