Senate Democrats

Vital Legislation to Expand and Improve Head Start Has Become Law

The early-childhood development program, Head Start, promotes school readiness among America’s low-income children.  Since 1965, the program has provided the nation’s neediest children with comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and social services to help prepare them for success in school.  Studies document a wide gap in preparation between lower and higher-income children as they enter kindergarten which, if unaddressed, often persists into later years in schooling.  This is in part because lower-income children are far less likely than their higher-income peers to participate in early childhood education programs before beginning elementary school.  Research also shows that Head Start helps to narrow this achievement gap between our nation’s poorest children and their more affluent peers. 

Unfortunately, due to inadequate funding, Head Start currently serves only about half of all eligible preschool children and approximately three percent of eligible infants and toddlers.[1]  Moreover, it has been almost a decade since Head Start has been reauthorized.  The last Head Start reauthorization, which was enacted in 1998, expired in 2003, and the program has merely been extended during the annual appropriations process since.  That is why Democrats have spearheaded efforts to expand and improve this invaluable program.  Under Democratic leadership, Congress overwhelmingly approved the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act, legislation that reauthorizes Head Start through 2012.  The President signed this legislation into law on December 12.    

As funding for other health, education, and social services programs has been cut under Republican leadership, low-income families have an even greater need for the services that Head Start provides.  The reauthorization of Head Start will ensure that more children have the skills they need to enter school ready to learn. 

Head Start supports America’s neediest children, helping them overcome the disadvantages of growing up in poverty.  Head Start targets our nation’s poorest children – those from families with income at or below the federal poverty level ($20,650 for a family of four) or receiving public assistance.  The program provides a range of educational experiences for children, with performance standards guiding teaching in Head Start classrooms and ensuring that children develop the early reading and math skills they need to enter school ready to learn.  In addition to addressing children’s cognitive development, Head Start also meets many other unmet needs of program children and their families that might otherwise hinder the children’s ability to learn.  Specifically, the program offers the following:

·        Health services.  The program coordinates with health and nutrition programs to ensure children’s medical, dental, nutritional and mental health needs are met.  During the 2005-2006 Head Start Program Year, 91 percent of Head Start children had health insurance, predominantly through Medicaid.[2]  Head Start children receive a battery of health screenings upon enrollment in the program; are provided with up-to-date immunizations that reduce their chances of catching deadly diseases; receive dental services ensure oral health; and receive mental health services that increase their chances of growing up mentally and emotionally healthy.  These health services increase poor children’s ability to perform in school; help eliminate health problems that will prevent poor school attendance in subsequent years; and increase the likelihood that poor children will grow up to be healthy, productive members of society.[3] 

·        Social services.  To compliment its education and health services, Head Start provides social services to program families, including parenting education and counseling, health education, emergency and crisis intervention, job training, literacy, housing assistance, and transportation assistance.

·        Parent involvement.  Acknowledging parents’ critical role in their children’s education, Head Start strives to engage parents both in the classroom as volunteers and at home via home visits.  Parents may also serve on policy councils, giving them direct input into the administration of their child’s program.

Head Start funds go directly to community-based organizations serving children and their families.  The funding structure of the program provides federal funding directly to local, community-based programs, allowing flexibility for programs to meet the unique needs of their populations while still adhering to strong national standards.  The federal government provides 80 percent of the yearly cost to operate a Head Start program, and the remaining 20 percent must come from a “local match” or “in-kind” contributions. 

Head Start works.  Since its inception, Head Start has enrolled over 24 million children.[4]  Both short- and long-term studies have found that Head Start children experience increased achievement test scores, and that the program has favorable long-term effects on grade repetition, special education, and graduation rates.  For example, the Congressionally-mandated Head Start Impact Study found that after only nine months of participation in Head Start, children in the program narrowed the achievement gap in pre-reading skills by 45 percent and in early writing skills by 28 percent with the national average for all three- and four-year-olds.[5]  Recent data compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has also shown that over the course of a program year, Head Start students experience an expansion of their vocabularies, early writing, and early math skills.[6]

Early Head Start also significantly benefits children and their families.  In 1994, in response to increased awareness of the importance of childhood development from birth to age three, Congress enacted Early Head Start, a component of Head Start that benefits infants and toddlers and their families.  Early Head Start has also proven successful.  For example, a national evaluation of the program found that three-year-old Early Head Start children performed significantly better on a range of measures of cognitive, language, and social-emotional development than a randomly-assigned control group.[7] 

Head Start is a wise investment.  Research has shown the economic benefits to society of investment in Head Start.  For example, the preliminary results of a longitudinal study of more than 600 Head Start graduates in California showed that for every dollar invested in these Head Start children, society received a nine-dollar return on its investment.  These benefits included increased earnings, employment, family stability, and decreased welfare dependency, crime costs and grade repetition, and special education.[8]

The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act expands and improves the proven Head Start program.  The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act improves classroom and teacher quality; updates the program’s standards and curriculum to reflect the latest and best science on early childhood development; and establishes strong accountability measures to ensure programs operate efficiently and effectively.  Specifically, the legislation:

·        Enables more low-income children to access Head Start services.  The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act expands the Head Start program to include tens of thousands of low-income children who are currently not being served by the program.  Specifically, the legislation:

  • Provides greater flexibility to serve children whose family income is just above the federal poverty level (up to 130 percent of the poverty level), while ensuring that serving the neediest children remains the program’s top priority.
  • Increases the overall authorization of the program by 6.1 percent in Fiscal Year 2008 to $7.3 billion, by 3.9 percent in Fiscal Year 2009 to $7.6 billion, and by over 4 percent in Fiscal Year 2010 to $7.9 billion.
  • Prioritizes expansion for Indian Head Start and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, and ensures the availability of funds for these programs. 
  • Provides for greater participation by homeless children by removing barriers to their enrollment.
  • Enhances opportunities for children with disabilities to participate in the program and receive appropriate services.
  • Improves the program’s enrollment and intake policies to identify more effectively emerging populations of children in poverty.
  • Enhances outreach to English language learner children, including by training teachers to assist such children in learning English and developing critical skills. 

·        Strengthens and expands Early Head Start.  The legislation increases funding for Early Head Start by $83 million (funds permitting) to serve an additional 8,000 infants and toddlers.  In addition, the legislation:

  • Guarantees comprehensive services, including mental health, socio-emotional development, and other behavioral assessments and services for program participants.
  • Improves the training and assistance network serving Early Head Start, and designates a dedicated infant and toddler expert in each state.
  • Strengthens the Early Head Start workforce by requiring training in infant and toddler development for all program teachers and new standards for home visitors in the program.
  • Allows programs, on a case-by-case basis, to convert preschool slots to serve infants and toddlers.

·        Better prepares children for success in school.  The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act strengthens Head Start’s emphasis on critical early-learning skills and school readiness.  Specifically, the legislation:

  • Strengthens educational standards in the program to promote the development of language and literacy, math, science, and other cognitive skills. 
  • Terminates use of the ineffective and inappropriate Head Start National Reporting System promulgated by the Bush Administration, which established a national assessment of Head Start children without authorization or oversight by Congress. 
  • Instead, commissions the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to review and evaluate what assessments and outcomes are appropriate for Head Start children, and requires the Health and Human Services Secretary to reevaluate and update the current standards and assessments in accordance with the latest research on child development, including the results of NAS recommendations.    
  • Requires the use of best practices to support children’s emerging literacy and vocabulary skills. 
  • Facilitates the transition of Head Start children to school through better coordination between programs and schools, shared teacher training, and alignment of curriculum to state early learning standards and expectations for children in their kindergarten year.
  • Provides ongoing literacy training for Head Start teachers to promote the development of children’s pre-reading skills.
  • Provides resources to enable parents to prepare their children for school.

·        Enhances the Head Start workforce.  TheImproving Head Start for School Readiness Act invests in and enhances the educational goals for Head Start teachers.  Specifically, the legislation:

  • Establishes the following new goals for Head Start teachers and requires agencies to report annually on their progress towards meeting these goals.  By 2013:

·        All Head Start teachers nationwide should have an Associate’s degree;

·        Half of all teachers should have a Bachelor’s degree;

·        All Head Start curriculum specialists should have at least a Bachelor’s degree; and

·        All Head Start assistant teachers should have at least a child development associate credential and be working toward completing a degree within two years.

·        Dedicates new funding toward improving teacher salaries and supporting professional development.

·        Requires all Head Start teachers to have at least 15 hours of in-service training each year.

·        Guarantees a career advancement plan for every Head Start employee. 

·        Establishes new partnerships with colleges and universities to prepare better and increase the number of staff serving minority children.

·        Strengthens coordination and collaboration between Head Start and other programs for children. The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act provides for better coordination of the Head Start program with other state programs for low-income children.  The legislation:

  • Designates a new State Advisory Council on Early Education and Care in every state to assess needs concerning the quality and availability of early childhood education and care, and develop recommendations regarding: 

·        Creation of a unified system of data collection;

·        Identification of new areas and mechanisms for collaboration between early childhood programs; and

·        Implementation of statewide professional development for the early childhood education workforce. 

  • Dedicates 15 percent of new funds (up to $100 million) for new incentive grants to promote the development and expansion of state early care and education plans.
  • Establishes a Head Start Collaboration Office in every state to assist local Head Start agencies in:

·        Developing partnerships at the local level;

·        Expanding and improving support services to Head Start children;

·        Coordinating training opportunities for Head Start staff; and

·        Aligning the Head Start program curricula and standards with state early learning standards.

  • Establishes and awards financial bonuses to “Centers of Excellence” that provide exemplary services to Head Start children and families.

·        Ensures program accountability and quality services. The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act includes stronger oversight and reporting requirements for the program.  The legislation: 

  • Dedicates $2 million in Fiscal Year 2008 to Head Start agencies for local training and improvement efforts.
  • Reserves 40 percent of new Head Start funds for quality enhancements in programs, including salary increases for Head Start staff. 
  • Guarantees Head Start programs an annual cost-of-living increase.
  • Requires each local Head Start agency to establish a formal system of governance to oversee agency operation and make decisions regarding program design and implementation.  This structure includes a governing body, which will have legal and fiscal responsibility, and a policy council elected by parents of children in the Head Start program, which is responsible for direction of the program, including program design and operation, and long- and short-term planning goals and objectives.  
  • Improves oversight of the program by allowing the Department of Health and Human Services to take away funding more quickly from programs with serious deficiencies.  In addition, the legislation strengthens the monitoring of programs by improving the quality of review teams, requiring the inclusion of a detailed fiscal management protocol, and requiring follow-up site visits of deficient programs.
  • Establishes a new system for the designation of Head Start grants, and requires deficient Head Start grantees (those with a demonstrated record of non-compliance with Head Start’s program standards) to re-compete for their grants.
  • Creates a new policy to address programs that are under-enrolled (i.e., their actual enrollment is less than the level of enrollment for which they are funded): 

·        Under-enrolled Head Start grantees will implement a plan to correct the problem and receive technical assistance and support to do so.

·        Under this corrective action plan, should enrollment that is less than 97 percent of the grantee’s funded enrollment persist, the federal government could recapture, reduce or withhold funds associated with under-enrolled slots. 

  • Requires each local Head Start agency to conduct a comprehensive self-assessment annually in consultation with its policy council.
  • Requires each Head Start agency to submit an annual accounting of administrative expenses in programs to the Secretary.

·        Strengthens services for the families of Head Start Children.  The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act places a greater emphasis on the early identification of child and family mental health needs, and on directing families to appropriate services.  The legislation also requires programs to implement research-based best practices for family service workers and targets quality improvement dollars towards decreasing family service workers’ caseloads. 



[1] Congressional Research Service, Head Start:  Background and Issues, November 13, 2007.

[2] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start Program Fact Sheet Fiscal Year 2007.

[3] National Head Start Association, “A Look at Head Start’s Health Services and Their Value to Our Nation’s Poorest Children,” 2003.

[4] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start Program Fact Sheet Fiscal Year 2007.

[5] U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, “Head Start Impact Study – First Year Findings,” June 2005.

[6] U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) Findings, December 2006.

[7] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project, “Early Head Start Benefits Children and Families:  Research to Practice Brief,” April 2006.

[8] National Head Start Association, “Benefits of Head Start and Early Head Start Programs,” citing Meier, J., Interim Report, Kindergarten Readiness Study:  Head Start Success, June 2003.

Bookmark and Share