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The Biden Administration Gives Added Flexibility to Serve More Children in Head Start

Resource April 8, 2024

On March 23, 2024, President Biden signed into law two changes that give Head Start programs additional flexibility to enroll children in Tribal communities and children of farmworkers. 

Tribal Head Start programs, or American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) programs, can now prioritize enrolling children who are tribal members or who live with tribal members, regardless of family income. Head Start eligibility is generally restricted to families at or below the federal poverty line, those experiencing homelessness, receiving public assistance, or in foster care. This change gives Tribal nations the ability to serve more children who stand to benefit from Head Start and to better meet the needs of families in their communities. Tribal Head Start not only provides high-quality early learning and comprehensive services, it also intentionally incorporates  traditional languages and cultural practices into programs. In fiscal year 2022, the Office of Head Start funded 202 AI/AN grant recipients which enrolled a total of 16,870 children1.

The other provision expands eligibility for Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) programs, which serve children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Any child who has at least one family member primarily engaged in agricultural employment is now eligible for Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs, regardless of income. Before this change, to be eligible for MSHS, a family had to demonstrate that more than 50 percent of their income came from agricultural work in addition to meeting eligibility criteria for Head Start. A recent report found that MSHS programs consistently enroll more families where at least one parent is employed compared to other Head Start programs, and that minimum wage increases can make it difficult for some MSHS programs to find families that meet the traditional eligibility requirements. 

MSHS programs cater to the unique needs of this population, whose families are moving frequently, working long hours during certain times of the year, and often require dual language services. These families often have extremely limited child care options, and this change will allow MSHS to serve more families and ensure that children are in high-quality care instead of accompanying parents to work. In FY2023, MSHS had 55 programs and enrolled 20,169 children. 

The Administration explains that these changes come as a response to needs identified by these specific communities and programs. More changes might be coming to AI/AN Head Start programs, as the Office of Head Start Tribal Programs is currently requesting public comment on whether existing requirements, regulations, and supports are best meeting the needs of children and communities. We commend the Administration for taking steps to maximize access to Head Start and meet the needs of different communities.  The new policies are effective immediately and guidance on implementation is forthcoming2

  1. Data from the Office of Head Start – Program Information Report (PIR) Enrollment Statistics Report – 2023 – National Level,    
  2. Data from the Office of Head Start – Program Information Report (PIR) Enrollment Statistics Report – 2023 – National Level,  

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