The pandemic hindered access to federally funded Head Start programs for young children living in poverty, exacerbating inequities in enrollment, staff salaries and quality of services, said a report released Thursday by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Enrollment dropped by 257,000 children — or 33% — between 2018-19 and 2020-21 in the Head Start program for preschoolers and by 22,000 — or 10% — in the Early Head Start program for infants and toddlers. Head Start funding per child also was lower in states that enrolled a higher percentage of Black children and employed a higher percentage of Black teachers, compared to other states, according to the data from NIEER, an independent, nonprofit research organization at Rutgers Graduate School of Education.
The report found significant state-by-state differences in Head Start and Early Head Start funding, enrollment, program components and quality.
But while the research revealed areas of deficit, there were also signs of progress. Washington, D.C., for example, enrolled 38% of eligible Early Head Start children living in poverty in 2020-21, compared to 9% nationally.
To get to a system that is accessible to all qualified children, however, researchers estimate an additional $10 billion is needed. Federal funding for Head Start programs in fiscal year 2022 was $11 billion. They also suggest a reauthorization of Head Start — last updated in 2012 — is needed to improve equity of access.
"Head Start has never been funded to serve all the eligible population," said Steven Barnett, NIEER senior co-director, in a press call ahead of the report release. "That forces tradeoffs between quality and quantity or enrollment."
He added later in the call, "I think in fact, essentially, the Head Starts are being encouraged to raise quality and serve fewer children."
Researchers looked at four key areas impacting equitable access:
The COVID-19 pandemic. Mirroring what occurred in pre-K-12 schools during the early part of the public health crisis, enrollment shrank in Head Start programs in 2020-21.
Enrollment in Head Start declined in every state, and territory as well as in Washington, D.C. Enrollment in Early Head Start declined in all but six states — Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa and Utah — and D.C.
Many children who did participate in Head Start programs that year received virtual instruction. However, data is unavailable for who attended virtually, for how long and what the impacts were.
Expansion of universal preschool in some states may have influenced Head Start enrollment. For instance, D.C.'s funded preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds brought the city's Head Start enrollment for children living in poverty to 6%.
Data from 2021-22 shows enrollment is rebounding nationally, yet is not back at pre-COVID-19 levels.
To encourage more participation in Head Start, additional funding could be used to improve facilities, recruit and retain staff and conduct outreach to eligible families, the report recommended.
Race and ethnicity. Head Start and Early Head Start enrollment, funding and experiences vary by child race and ethnicity, with inequities noted nationally and in most states. But many of these variations are not easily explained, the report said.
A higher percentage of Black children living in poverty (33%) enrolled in Head Start than White children (25%), Asian children (23%), and children of other races (28%). Hispanic/Latino children living in poverty were less likely to enroll in Head Start compared to non-Hispanic/Latino children.
Some differences can be explained by eligibility factors that Head Start considers for prioritizing enrollment. However, Head Start funding per child was lower in states that enrolled a higher percentage of Black children.
Washington, D.C., and the four states with the highest percent of Black children — Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland and Mississippi — averaged $9,450 per child in Head Start funding. In the five states with the lowest percentage of Black children — Idaho, Montana, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming — funding per child hit $12,654.
Poverty. Currently, Head Start and Early Head Start does not serve even half of the eligible children nationally, a fact Barnett called "inexcusable." Given the decade-long decline in childhood poverty rates, Barnett said either of two outcomes would be expected: the percentage of children receiving Head Start services would increase or funding for the program would decrease.
But neither of those things happened. Rather, funding has increased only slightly and the percentage of children living in poverty who are enrolled in Head Start has not changed, Barnett said.
Possible explanations are that funding did not keep up with inflation and the expense of improving quality of services, such as moving from half-day to full-day programming. Early Head Start services also expanded over this time. "The simplest way of looking at it is the mission of the program greatly expanded and funding did not," Barnett said.
Additional funding for Head Start and Early Head Start would allow programs to enroll more children from poverty-level families, especially in states and localities that do not offer public early childhood education programs.
State variation. The large state-by-state differences in Head Start and Early Head Start funding, enrollment, program components and quality are not explained by differences in state population eligibility and needs.
For example, 14 states had a significantly larger percentage of White children living in poverty who were enrolled in Head Start than Black children in poverty enrolled. In 29 other states, however, it was the reverse.
Only D.C., three states and two territories — Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Palau and Virgin Islands — funded nearly all Head Start enrollment to operate for at least 1,020 hours during the program year. In eight states and three territories, less than half of Head Start children got 1,020 hours of services.
Head Start and Early Head Start teachers in every state earned less than public school teachers and less than the state median income. Head Start lead teachers earned an average of $37,685 compared to $67,818 for public school teachers. In seven states, however, the average Head Start salary — when adjusted for state-by-state cost of living differences — was below $30,000. In D.C. and West Virginia, average salaries were above $45,000.
"Part of the call for additional funding is to support increases in teacher salaries and bring them up to at least closer to K-12 teachers," said Allison Friedman-Krauss, the report's lead author and an assistant research professor at NIEER.