A federal expansion of pre-K should build on the efforts of leading states to partner with Head Start

Four pictures of cute todders with a quote above them that says: “America’s new universal preschool system must be holistic, meeting the full range of children’s needs — learning, health, mental health, and economic stability for their families. Fortunately, there is already a national preschool program with a model fit for this moment: Head Start.
Quote from the Children’s Equity Project recent report, Building a Universal Preschool System Around Head Start.

Right now, through the American Families Plan (AFP) President Biden is calling for a national partnership with states to offer free, high-quality, and inclusive preschool to all three- and four-year-olds. According to the White House, this expansion could benefit five million children.

With this focus on a major expansion of pre-K, it makes sense to examine the benefits of positioning Head Start as the anchor in the new, universal system — not only to ensure equitable access, but to optimize on existing state partnerships.

Every state in the country has both a nonprofit Head Start Association and a State Head Start Collaboration Office. They provide a structure and a process for the federal Office of Head Start (OHS) to work and partner with state agencies and local entities. Together, these partners work to leverage their common interests around young children and their families to formulate, implement, and improve state and local policy and practices.

Thanks to the existing infrastructure, dozens of states have built on the Head Start model. In West Virginia, 58% of pre-Kindergarten communities collaborate with Head Start. In Michigan, 18% of children in the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP) receive services in a blended Head Start/GSRP model. Alabama’s First Class Pre-K offers dedicated funding for Head Start programs, enabling services to 1,693 children across 94 classrooms. In Iowa, Head Start serves children through the Shared Visions Preschool program, which provides services to children from at-risk backgrounds in 29 counties.

Why States Matter in the Pre-K Conversation

In recent years, we know states have become increasingly committed to broadening the availability of early education programs. Many have partnered with Head Start to advance their goals. As a state designs an initiative around Head Start, three key considerations regularly surface: parent choice, quality, and equity.

Parent Choice

Today, Head Start’s 1,600 recipients serve over 700,000 three- and four-year-olds in a diverse range of community-based settings, including public schools, local nonprofits, faith-based agencies, and community action agencies. Parent-need drives services, and programs offer many options to support families where they are. For example:


Head Start has credentialed teachers who are engaged in regular professional development. Likewise, programs practice robust data collection and analysis so limited funding is well-spent. Leading states have adopted key features of Head Start. For example:


As the Children’s Equity Project noted in their recent report, Building a Universal Preschool System Around Head Start, “building a universal preschool system from Head Start could be the route most likely to result in equity and universality.” For states serving children and families who can benefit most from wraparound support and who tend to lag in Kindergarten readiness, many states have sought to emulate the Head Start equity model, including:

In addition to directly funding expanded Head Start access through the Office of Head Start, it is critical to build on these leading state examples. The key next step is requiring or incentivizing states to expand their partnerships with Head Start, with particular attention to equitably supporting the early childhood workforce and coordinating enrollment.

With respect to the workforce:

With respect to coordinating enrollment:

Establishing an effective state-federal pre-K system is best served by a commitment to building on the progress leading states have already made in partnering with Head Start. The dedicated programs and staff of Head Start stand ready to advance this once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand quality pre-K to millions more children.



NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.

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National Head Start Association

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.