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:

  • Rhode Island offers three options for Head Start programs that want to offer state-funded pre-Kindergarten: dual funded; braided funding; and layering of Head Start, child care, and pre-K funding. These options offer many program models and extended hours for working families.
  • In Minnesota preschool and pre-K funding streams, schools receive “bonus points” in their applications if they partner with Head Start.
  • Kansas schools that contract with Head Start to deliver pre-Kindergarten are able to count Head Start slots toward the state funding formula.

Quality

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:

Equity

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:

  • Washington State’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, which has deepened their focus on inclusive practices, tribal partnerships, piloting a therapeutic model for children with trauma and funding facility improvements.
  • Hawaii, which aligns with Head Start by prioritizing enrollment of children experiencing housing instability, children in foster care, English language learners, and others. Application packets are translated into Chuukese, Hawaiian, Ilocano, Marshallese, Samoan, Spanish, and Tagalog. Families who enroll and express an interest in infant/toddler care for a sibling are sent an Early Head Start application.

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:

  • Maryland is one of many states that require compensation and benefits for lead pre-K teachers in community-based settings like Head Start to equal those in public schools, using a local educational agency pay scale.
  • New Jersey offers an extra $4,000 to $8,000 per child in pre-K funding to Head Start to allow programs to close wage gaps and ensure comprehensive support.

With respect to coordinating enrollment:

  • Kentucky has a “full utilization” requirement in law that is meant to avoid supplantation of federal funds and ensure as many four-year olds who are eligible for Head Start access it. The law requires a “certification” from local Head Start programs that they are fully enrolled.
  • South Carolina’s early childhood education efforts, including their Child Early Reading Development and Education Program for at-risk four-year olds, are coordinated with Head Start, including through robust data sharing and data integration, shared enrollment efforts and representation by Head Start on the state’s Early Childhood Advisory Council and local councils.

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.