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Report Demonstrates Inequitable Access to Head Start Services

Resource December 9, 2022

The National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) recently released “State[s] of Head Start and Early Head Start,” a report that focuses on access to Head Start and Early Head Start services in the 2020-2021 school year. NIEER identifies both areas where Head Start is excelling for all children, as well as areas of inequitable access.

Decades of research show that participation in Head Start has both short and long-term positive effects for young children and their families. However, insufficient federal funding has limited the program’s ability to deliver these high-quality services to all eligible children. In fact, among young children in poverty only 30% of 3-to-5 year olds and 9% of infants and toddlers were served by the program in the 2020-2021 year.

There are some recent bright spots. For example, the top five states for Head Start access enrolled an estimated average of 74% of 3- and 4-year-olds in poverty. However, due to a variety of challenges paired with inadequate federal funding, this report finds that Head Start enrollment, funding, and classroom experiences vary by child’s race and ethnicity, poverty level, and geography. NIEER notes that both increased funding and outreach to underrepresented families are critical steps to decrease the identified inequities. See below for key highlights, as well as policy recommendations to make Head Start more equitable and to reach more children and families, from the NIEER report. 

COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Across all Head Start programs, 287,000 fewer children attended Head Start in 2020-2021 than in 2018-2019. Enrollment partially rebounded in 2021-2022.
  • Enrollment in Head Start declined in all 50 states, D.C., and the U.S. Territories, but some states saw a more significant decline than others. Enrollment in Early Head Start declined in all but 7 states.


  • Head Start and Early Head Start do not reach even half of the children in poverty (defined as 100% of the federal poverty level) even though all are eligible. 
  • Head Start served 41% of 3 & 4-year-olds in poverty in 2018–2019. The Covid-19 pandemic reduced this to 30% in 2020–2021.
  • Early Head Start served 9% of children under 3 in poverty in 2018-2019. This remained level in 2020-2021 despite a 10% decrease in Early Head Start enrollment.
  • Nationally, Head Start funding per child is less in states with higher child poverty whereas Early Head Start funding per child is higher in states with higher child poverty.

Race and Ethnicity

  • Head Start funding per child was lower in states that enrolled a higher percentage of Black children in Head Start. In the five states with the highest percent of Black children (DC, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi), average funding per child was $9,450, compared to $12,655 in the five states with the lowest percentage of Black children in the state (Idaho, Montana, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming), a difference of $3,204 per child after adjusting for differences in cost of living by state. The reason for this discrepancy is not readily apparent.
  • Classroom quality, as measured by the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), was lower in states that enrolled a higher percentage of Black children.

State Variation

  • Although all Head Start and Early Head Start programs are required to follow the same Head Start Program Performance Standards, this report identifies large state-by-state differences that have no policy rationale. State-by-state fact sheets, as well as more data on observed quality, duration, transportation, children with disabilities, teacher salaries, and teacher turnover, is also available.

This data demonstrate the clear and pressing need for increased federal investments to support young children in accessing high-quality Head Start services. In order to both make Head Start more equitable and reach more eligible children, NIEER recommends increasing funding for Head Start and Early Head Start, as well as providing additional funding to increase teacher salaries.

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