Hard Realities for Early Head Start

As the Senate debates whether to cut some Head Start funding from the stimulus package, let's zoom in on Early Head Start for a minute. Early Head Start has been shown to give children a significant boost in cognitive and social skills, according to solid, scientific research. Yet the program serves only 62,000 children nationwide.

Those small numbers are one reason why President Obama has called for quadrupling the program. It’s also part of why, in late 2007, lawmakers added a new provision to the laws governing Head Start. The provision gives Head Start centers, which typically serve 4-year-olds, the ability to transform themselves into Early Head Start programs, which provide pre-natal, infant and toddler services.

But there is one hitch: no federal dollars come with this new flexibility. If a center wants to open an Early Head Start program, which often includes home visits plus center-based care, it will have to shut down classrooms for its preschoolers and serve fewer children unless it finds outside funding.

This painful reality comes through in a recent webcast video by the Office of Head Start. The video is intended to serve as a resource for Head Start administrators, and it accompanies written instructions on how to apply for approval to convert. (If you're interested, sign up to view the video.)

It's not great television, but it makes a compelling case for why Early Head Start will not be able to expand in any significant way without additional financial support. To convert to an Early Head Start program, administrators will have to cut enrollment for preschoolers, the video tells us. And once administrators open their Early Head Start programs, they will probably be serving fewer children than they did before. That's because quality programs for infants and toddlers require a lower child-to-instructor ratio. Without the money to hire additional teachers, centers will have to cut back on the number of young children they serve.

Here’s Craig Turner, director of policy and budget for the Office of Head Start, explaining what administrators will have to do to gain approval for conversion:

“You will have to propose enrollment reductions of discrete classrooms of 17 to 20 children,” he said. “You must be willing to fund a meaningful reduction in size in your Head Start programs.”

“You can serve two Early Head Start children for every three Head Start children," he added later. "Unless you are bringing outside resources, this will result in a reduction in children.”

Sounds a little like robbing Peter to pay Paul, don't you think? Given these limitations, will Head Start centers even attempt a conversion? In some places, yes, preschool enrollments may be declining as children enroll in state-based pre-K programs -- and perhaps in those cases, the conversion will still make sense. Yet in this economy, with more people out of work, the number of families eligible for Head Start is more likely to go up than down. Before debate started this week, the stimulus package in both the House and Senate versions, included a $1 billion boost to the program. We’ve argued that early childhood programs need more than just a temporary infusion of cash; they need sustainable support that lasts more than 2 years. Whatever the form, more funding is vital for a program that has, in its first 15 years, demonstrated considerable success.

It will be interesting to watch how many conversions happen over the next several years. (The first ones will probably not open until 2010, considering the level of planning and consensus-building that is required by the Office of Head Start before they can begin.) How many slots for 4-year-olds will be converted and where will those 4-year-olds go? If they go to other pre-K programs, will they miss out on some of the health and nutrition services that come with Head Start? Will the care-givers for infants and toddlers get adequate training in how to care for children so young, recognizing and respecting their differences in stages of development? Will they find it difficult to adapt to schedules of regular home visits along with center-based care? Will centers need to renovate? (At the very least, as noted in the video, they might need cribs, diapering stations and refrigerator space for storing breast milk.)

The general guidance in this Head Start video: Don’t rush into a conversion. Think it through. Make a plan, craft a budget and consider exactly how your populations will be affected. All good advice. When and if more funding does eventually come through, that planning can put Head Start centers in good position for making a positive impact in their communities in the long run.

Author:

Lisa Guernsey is deputy director of the Education Policy program and director of the Learning Technologies project at New America.