Head Start: a proven model that works

A few weeks ago top leaders in early education gathered at Washington Post Live to continue the conversation on the very critical issue of investing in early education (click here to see pictures and video from the day: Investing in the Future through Early Childhood Education.

As someone who’s been in the early education field as long as I have I was delighted to see so many of my colleagues and staunch early childhood advocates on the panels: Joan Lombardi, Jacqueline Jones, Diane Dodge and Phyllis Magrab, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Mark Shriver. As the conversations progressed I was struck with two critical questions: how do we define quality early education? And once we define quality early education -- how are we going to fund it to the levels needed to make a significant difference in the District?

The bottom line is we haven’t truly invested in young children. When Mark Shriver shared his perception of a program his father began, Head Start, I was moved when he stressed the need to continue to fund Head Start programs and to ensure those programs delivering Head Start programs are of the highest quality! We should expect no less!

 As head of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), Sargent Shriver (Mark’s father) convened a panel of 14 experts to develop a strategy for meeting the needs of preschoolers living in deep poverty. At the beginning of 1965, the panel issued “Recommendations for a Head Start Program.” This group of visionaries created Head Start as a way to enhance children's social competence through a comprehensive program that included health, nutrition, education, social services, and parent involvement components.”

Many believe Head Start is the most important social and educational investment in children, families, and communities that the United States has ever undertaken. Head Start has remained strong in the face of changing political and fiscal climates over the past 46 years because it has continually improved the services it delivers to children and families and because it has responded to the changing needs of local communities. Yet why has such a comprehensive and outcome-based program only served only 50 % of the children who are eligible?

In 1965, Head Start had a $96.4 million budget and served 561,000 children through summer programs. The Human Service Reauthorization Act in 1990 dramatically increased Head Start funding in an effort to serve all eligible 4-year-olds and 30 percent of eligible 5-year-olds by 1994. The Head Start Reauthorization Act of 1994 expanded Head Start still further and proposed yet another significant funding increase. Head Start's appropriation for 1995 was $3.53 billion, with services to be provided to 752,000 children. The appropriation for FY 2000 climbed to more than $5.2 billion to serve Head Start and Early Head Start children and their families. Today's budget is $7.2 billion, which still doesn’t reflect an adjustment for inflation or the population growth.

Key initiatives in recent years have expanded Head Start services and enhanced program quality. These include Early Head Start, for children 0-3, a reorganization of the training and technical assistance system, issuance of revised Program Performance Standards and Guidance, revision of the monitoring system, and a renewed emphasis on professional development, creating partnerships, family literacy, and research.

In a letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, Dr. James Heckman, Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago and Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics, recommends “Funding for an improved Head Start and Early Head Start, as well as the Child Care and Development Block Grant,   to spur public/private collaboration on program replication. While there has lately been much debate about the effectiveness of Early Head Start and Head Start, it is imperative to continue funding linked to improving quality of delivery.”

With ALL this effort to find a model early childhood program that’s working -- why aren’t we expanding and continuing to increase quality Head Start and Early Head Start programs even more?