Head Start is a federally funded program that delivers comprehensive early learning, health, nutrition and family support services to children ages 3 through 5 living in poverty and their families. Since its founding in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, Head Start has served over 36 million low-income children and families. Because of the overwhelmingly positive impact the program has had over the past five decades, Head Start enjoys broad bipartisan support among voters—and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
There are more than 1,600 local Head Start programs operating across America in every state and congressional district in the country. In light of this, there is significant diversity across the communities in which the program operates—rural, suburban, urban, migrant and seasonal, and those found on American Indian and Alaskan Native (AIAN) reservations.
While all Head Start programs must provide a continuum of high-quality early learning, health, nutrition, family engagement and support services and meet common quality standards outlined in the Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS), programs also have flexibility to customize services and program models based on the needs of families in specific local communities. This approach also allows many programs to combine Head Start funding with other federal and state funds for preschool, child care or other early care and education services to maximize the impact of public funds.
Decades of research shows that participation in Head Start has both short- and long-term positive effects for Head Start children and their families. Children who attend Head Start demonstrate marked academic and social progress and are more likely to enter kindergarten ready to learn. Additionally, adults who attended Head Start as children are more likely to graduate high school and are better prepared to be parents to their own children. Head Start also increases parents’ engagement in their children’s learning, and parents whose children attend Head Start are more likely to advance their own education than other parents of at-risk youngsters.
Research also shows that Head Start program quality has improved dramatically over the past 10 years. This is due, in large part, to Congress passing bipartisan Head Start legislation in 2007 that included policies designed to strengthen teaching in Head Start programs and improve coordination between Head Start and other early childhood programs. Additionally, in 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revised the HSPPS to further support high-quality early learning and comprehensive services by emphasizing performance and ongoing improvement rather than compliance and incorporating recent research on effective early learning, child development and family engagement.
Despite these benefits, current Head Start funding levels are insufficient to provide access to all eligible children. Only 36% of eligible 3- to 5-year-olds have access to Head Start. Meeting the requirements of the new HSPPS and expanding access to full-day Head Start programs will also require additional resources.
FFYF supports increased funding to help address the needs of young children from low-income families and is committed to identifying opportunities that will result in more children accessing high-quality learning opportunities. FFYF has a plan to leverage public support for early childhood education and care, which includes building upon investments in Head Start.
Early Head Start
Early Head Start is a federally funded program that provides intensive, comprehensive child development and family support services to low-income infants and toddlers under age 3, pregnant women and their families. Early Head Start was established during the 1994 reauthorization of Head Start as federal policymakers recognized the important role prenatal experiences, as well as those in the years from birth to age 3, play in laying the foundation for children’s later learning and development. Research shows that interventions are most effective the earlier they reach children. This is particularly true during infancy and toddlerhood.
Early Head Start programs promote children’s development, support parents in their role as children’s first teachers and primary caregivers, and help families make progress toward self-sufficiency. They do so through a variety of services, including home visiting; parent engagement and support; high-quality child care; and nutrition, health and behavioral health services—all of which are customized to local and family needs.
Research shows that participation in Early Head Start benefits both children and families. Early Head Start children make gains in social-emotional, language and cognitive development compared to non-participants. Those who continue to Head Start are more ready for kindergarten, and positive impacts on social-emotional development are sustained through at least fifth grade. Parents’ participation in Early Head Start also improves their parenting skills, including father engagement.
Despite its success, however, Early Head Start serves only a small percentage of eligible children. Nationally, Early Head Start programs serve over 160,000 children and pregnant women annually—just 11% of those eligible. To help address this, Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services created the Early Head Start–Child Care Partnerships program, which helps extend the high-quality, comprehensive services of Early Head Start to children in community-based child care settings. Despite this, the need far outweighs the supply, and many low-income infants, toddlers, and their families lack access to high-quality child care and comprehensive development supports.
Putting all children, particularly children from low-income families, on track for success in school and life will require increasing investments in high-quality early care, education, and comprehensive development supports for infants and toddlers. FFYF has a plan to leverage public support for early childhood education and care, so that more infants, toddlers, pregnant women, and parents of young children get the support they need to foster children’s healthy development and learning in the earliest years of life.
In response to the devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis, Congress has provided additional funding for Head Start to help meet the needs of the children and families it services. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, enacted in March 2020, included $750 million in additional funding. The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, enacted in December 2020, included an additional $250 million. Additionally, the American Rescue Plan, enacted in March 2021, included an additional $1 billion.
Current Head Start and Early Head Start Funding Level:
Head Start and Early Head Start are funded at $10.75 billion (one appropriation for both programs) for FY2021, an increase of $135 million over FY2020.