Head Start and State Pre-K: Competing, Collaborating and Evolving

Blog Post
Sept. 7, 2009

Today we begin a multi-week blog series, reported by Lisa Guernsey and Christina Satkowski, on the future of Head Start. Join us here at Early Ed Watch for a Web chat about the series on September 22nd at 12:30 p.m., hosted in partnership with Politico.com.

Head Start, the largest federally funded program for children under 5, has been offering free preschool and health services to poor children and their families for nearly 45 years. It has seen growth and stagnation, controversy and quiet. Today, with the Obama Administration signaling its intent to increase federal funding to support young children, one might think that Head Start was poised to enter one of its most expansive periods ever.

But there are several huge unanswered questions about Head Start's future. In recent years, parents and politicians have found themselves drawn instead to state-funded pre-K programs. Indeed, by 2008, more children at ages 3 and 4 were enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs than in Head Start. State programs enroll about 1.1 million preschoolers, while Head Start serves about 920,000 in that age range.* As Georgetown University researcher William Gormley wrote last year, "A silent revolution in early childhood has occurred."

Some may assume that these two types of publicly funded preschool programs are on a collision course. But are they really? Think of them as trains whose purpose is to deliver children to elementary school ready and eager to learn. Are they on different tracks that eventually arrive at the same place? Or are they trying to share the same track? Could one rail system become better integrated with the other?

It's impossible to arrive at good answers without a better understanding of how Head Start has evolved and how it compares and interoperates with current state-funded pre-K programs today. That is the mission of Early Ed Watch for the next two weeks. Based on interviews and research, six upcoming posts will

  • explore how new rules in the program's 2007 reauthorization are affecting Head Start;
  • check assumptions about the program's effectiveness;
  • provide updates on how Head Start approaches the teaching of pre-literacy;
  • explain how "comprehensive" services fit into the picture;
  • highlight trends that show Head Start getting "younger" and;
  • provide some guideposts for what's ahead.

This first post is designed to serve as a starting point, providing basic information about Head Start's mission and enrollment compared to state-funded programs. It's important to remember, for example, that Head Start is for the poorest of the poor, while families of many different income levels are eligible for state-funded pre-K. Some states, like Oklahoma and Georgia, offer it to everyone regardless of income. Others, like Illinois, have opened their programs first to low-income children with the intention of adding more families as funding becomes available.

Head Start's origins are also different from those of state-funded pre-K. Head Start was envisioned as a preschool-like environment that offered health and nutrition services, not to mention new ways for parents to get engaged. In contrast, states' pre-K programs often grew out of an emphasis on cognitive development, particularly the teaching of early literacy skills. Yet in recent years, as we'll describe in forthcoming blog posts, the gulf between these two objectives has narrowed and the missions of these two approaches are starting to sound more and more alike.

Fluctuations in funding at both the state and federal level will play a big role in determining the future of both types of programs. The full impact of the recession is yet to be known, but one possibility is that fiscal year 2009 will come to look like a high-water mark for state pre-K investment. In budgeting for 2010, for example, Illinois made cuts to its pre-K budget. In Ohio, the recession pushed legislators to eliminate the Early Learning Initiative. Meanwhile, the federal stimulus bill passed in February provided Head Start with a $2.1 billion boost, half of which goes toward a massive expansion of the Early Head Start program serving pregnant women and children up to 3. The federal stimulus is also paying for quality improvements and pay raises for Head Start staff, as well as shortening waiting lists for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Lastly, tighter collaboration between Head Start and state-funded pre-K programs -- urged for years -- is now happening in many cities and states. Some pre-K programs blend state and federal funding to expand access and services. In fact, about 14,000 children, according to NIEER, attend Head Start programs that double as state-funded pre-K programs. (A 2007 report from the Center for Law and Social Policy and PreK Now provides some examples of how collaboration can work.) Some states rely on Head Start to take on one task, such as reaching the most impoverished or enrolling 3-year-olds, while states do another, such as paying pre-K teachers to cover the morning hours.

For those of you still scratching your heads over the similarities and differences between the two, consider the comparison below as your primer. (An easier-to-read PDF is available here.) Please feel free to add your own perspective and insights in our blog comments. And tune in tomorrow for the next installment in our series on how - and if -- recent changes in the laws governing Head Start law have had an impact on the program.

* A few notes about enrollment data: The enrollment of state Pre-K -- 1.1 million -- comes from the National Institute for Early Education Research's 2008 State of Preschool Yearbook and includes the 50 states and DC. The number we cite for Head Start -- 920,000 -- is from Head Start's Program Information Report for 2007-2008 and includes the U.S. territories as well. If you were to look solely at federally funded Head Start enrollees in the 50 states and DC, the number is about 750,000, according to NIEER.


Same and Different: An Overview of Head Start and State-Funded Pre-K


History: Launched in 1965 when it served more than 100,000 5- and 6-year-olds through an eight-week, summer program.

Mission: To "promot[e] school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to enrolled children and families."

Enrollment: In 2007-08, more than 1 million children and pregnant women were enrolled in 2,599 Head Start and Early Head Start Programs; 921,501 of Head Start enrollees were 3- and 4- year olds. (27,699 were 5-year-olds.)

Eligibility: Available only to families at or below the poverty line. As of December 2007, up to 30 percent of enrollees may be from families with incomes up to 130 percent of the poverty line. Foster children and children with special needs are also eligible, and eligibility waivers are available for some family circumstances.

Funding: The federal government provides grants to local agencies which administer Head Start centers; in 2008 these grants totaled $6.8 billion. Agencies must fund 20 percent of their budgets with non-federal dollars, which can be raised through donations, state and local funds, or other sources, and can be provided in-kind. The federal government spends, on average, $7,326 per child in Head Start.


History: States have a long history of investing in pre-K programs: California's State Preschool Program, for example, began in 1965, the same year as the federal Head Start program, and Wisconsin has included state-funded preschool in its constitutions since 1848. The national movement to provide state-funded preschool didn't really take off until the 1990s, however. Now 39 states and the District of Columbia have pre-K programs, with Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma offering access regardless of family income. Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia have initiatives aimed at universal access. One state, Illinois, has a goal of universal access for 3-year-olds as well.

Mission: Varies according to each state, though typically includes school readiness as a major goal.

Enrollment: In 2007-08, more than 1.1 million children aged 3 and 4 attended state-funded preschool education, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, with vast disparities by state. Oklahoma, for example, enrolls more than 70 percent of its 4-year-old population. But 11 states have no public pre-K program at all.

Funding: $4.6 billion in 2008. Annual per-pupil spending ranges widely from $1,686 in Maine to $10,989 in New Jersey. Averaged together, states spend $4,061 per pupil.


SOURCES: Head Start Program Fact Sheet; Head Start Program Information Report 2007-08; The State of Preschool 2008 Yearbook from the National Institute for Early Education Research.