- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed a new rule this week to help Head Start boost recruitment and retention of its early childhood education staff. The proposal calls for increasing wages and benefits, bolstering supports for staff health and mental wellness, and building in breaks for staff.
- If finalized, the rule would raise average Head Start teacher wages by more than $10,000 a year to help equalize pay with other public preschool teachers, according to an HHS announcement.
- The proposal also seeks to help Head Start programs improve children’s health and safety within their facilities and support family engagement services. The proposed rule is open to public comments through Jan. 19.
An October survey of 260 Head Start and Early Head Start grant recipients revealed that the program’s workforce crisis is beginning to stabilize a bit. Some 15% of staff positions were vacant in October compared to 19% in February, according to the study by the National Head Start Association.
Yet 65% of grant recipients surveyed said vacancies continue to be higher than usual, NHSA said. Compensation is cited as the top driving force for staff vacancies, reported by 51% of survey respondents, followed by working conditions (17%) and other available job opportunities (15%).
Head Start classroom closures are slowing down as well, with 14% of classrooms closed in October versus 20% in February. A majority — 76% — of the classrooms shuttered because of staff vacancies, NHSA said.
Upon initial review of HHS’ proposed rule, the organization said significantly more funding is needed to achieve the proposed rule’s goals.
“We are grateful that the Administration has supported improvements in workforce compensation in its FY24 budget proposal; however, we remain concerned that if Congress does not agree to such increases, the impact of this proposal will be devastating to Head Start and Early Head Start, especially regarding the number of children and families able to be served,” said NHSA in a Nov. 16 statement to a preview of the HHS proposal.
The concern over congressional budget approval follows legislators' recent move to avert a government shutdown for the second time since September. The near-missed shutdowns have been driven by partisan divisions over federal funding plans. Amid these contentious negotiations, fears arose that some 10,000 children and families would lose access to Head Start early learning programs if a shutdown were to occur.
Head Start works with 250,000 staff and serves more than 840,000 children from birth to age 5 and their families from underserved populations.
The NHSA report also noted that staff vacancies have led Head Start program leaders to adjust the number of children enrolled so they can raise staff salaries. That, however, often results in a net reduction in the number of participating children.