Head Start, the federally funded program for preschool children from low-income families, is now up for reauthorization by Congress. Begun in 1965 by the Office of Economic Opportunity as an eight-week summer initiative, it soon expanded into a full-year program for children age 3 to school age. It has served ever since as an important component of the war on poverty, a war yet to be won in this the richest country of the world. It now reaches close to a million children every year. This achievement is laudable, but Head Start should be serving millions more who, though eligible, remain unserved.
Underfunding is just one of the problems that now loom as the reauthorization process begins. They are reflected in a Republican bill in the House and a Democratic bill in the Senate. The House Republican bill, the School Readiness Act of 2003, includes a potentially damaging provision that calls for block grants of federal funds to eight states as a pilot project. Up to now, the funds have gone directly to local grantees, nonprofit community groups of various kinds that have successfully managed Head Start programs for many years. Catholic Charities agencies around the country are among them, and these alone serve over 20,000 children each year.
Originally the Bush administration proposed block grants to all the states, with the funds to be used in combination with existing state funding for preschool programs. In the face of intense opposition from child advocates, however, an eight-state pilot program was substituted, which entails the risk of later expansion to other states. But advocates rightly fear that the states might be tempted to use part of the federal funding for purposes other than Head Start. With all states already struggling to implement the No Child Left Behind Act in the midst of severe budget constraints caused by the economic downturn, the fear is well founded. The administration has so far been unable to convince any senator of either party to sponsor the block grant approach.
Part of the reauthorization also includes proposals by Republican and Democratic senators to bolster the academic qualifications of Head Start teachers. Many are neighborhood mothers in poor communities. The proposals vary, but focus on having half or all teachers (depending on the proposal) obtain four-year college degrees by 2008. Although more teacher training is needed, the scale at which it is recommended would entail greatly increased funding, which might not be forthcoming. Even now, because of lack of funding, Head Start reaches only a fraction of the children who are eligible. Moreover, most of those currently enrolled attend for only half a day—a situation that in itself creates problems for working mothers who must make day care arrangements for the other half-day. For Head Start to reach its full potential, educators believe that full-day sessions are needed. This is because the program addresses not only educational needs, but medical and dental care and, not least, the nurturing that many children do not receive in their homes.
Because funding is low, there are insufficient means to reach more of those who are eligible, and sessions are limited to half-days. Lack of funding is also the reason far too few children benefit from one of the program’s most potentially effective aspects, Early Head Start, for children under 3 years of age. Current estimates suggest that this reaches only 3 percent of eligible children. Many children from low-income families have learning disabilities related to their mothers’ use of alcohol and other drugs. For these children, Early Head Start has been shown to be particularly helpful, even if it is only part time. Once the child is 18 months old, a teacher visits the home several times a week to engage the child in educational play, while at the same time demonstrating these techniques to the mother. Other valuable aspects of Head Start include services for the children of migrant workers that take into account the need to keep the families in touch with Head Start locations in other areas to which they move. Head Start also helps the children of homeless families, unfortunately a growing segment of the population.
The proof of Head Start’s effectiveness lies in its proven results. Studies have shown that graduates are less likely to run afoul of the law and more likely to graduate from high school and college than those who were not in the program. Thus an investment now saves society manyfold in the future. What is needed in the reauthorization is more funding for full-day sessions and ancillary programs like Early Head Start, so that Head Start’s full potential can be realized. And funding should continue to go to the providers directly, not through block grants to the states.