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Is Head Start Working? Depends Which State You Live In


A new report released today by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers Graduate School of Education has taken a deep look at the quality of Head Start programs on a state-by-state basis.

The report found after analyzing data from the 2014-2015 and 2006-2007 program years that Head Start, a federally funded national program, varies greatly in quality per state, resulting in the neglect of many children living in poverty. Funding per child, teacher education, quality of teaching, and duration of services were all factors determined to vary greatly on a state-by-state basis.

In Nevada, for example, only 17 percent of 4-year-old children living in poverty are enrolled in Head Start programs versus 100 percent of children enrolled in North Dakota.

When looking specifically at 3-year-olds, the report found that most states are only serving a small percentage—with states like Idaho only serving 15 percent of 3-year-olds living in poverty and only 6 percent of low-income 3-year-olds.

Overall, North Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Mississippi and Alaska are the leading states for enrolling 3- and 4-year-olds living in poverty. Nevada, North Carolina and Oregon, however, have some of the lowest enrollment figures for both ages.

When looking at the quality of Head Start’s educator workforce, the report’s authors found that even though Head Start teachers are becoming more and more qualified thanks to the Improving Head Start Act for School Readiness of 2007, they aren’t necessarily earning more pay.

"On average, Head Start teachers earned almost $24,000 less than public elementary school teachers with the same credentials. This discrepancy is even larger for Early Head Start teachers, who earned over $27,000 less than public elementary school teachers," the report says.

The report notes that this wage gap can potentially lead to both high turnover and an inexperienced workforce, though again, some Head Start educators fare better than others depending on what state they work in.

"In some states the salary gaps were less than half the average, below $10,000, but in others they were about twice the average with gaps exceeding $40,000 in Massachusetts and New York, as well as in New Jersey for Early Head Start only," the report says.

These findings are in-line with a report from earlier this year that found early educators are suffering from a lack of pay in all 50 states. 

As for the quality of the program, the report found that most programs are not reaching the intended goal of providing 1,020 hours of Head Start services to each enrolled child per year. Only 42 percent of all enrolled children are currently receiving the recommended number of hours, but the report notes that by 2021 all programs will be required to do so.

Perhaps the biggest reason behind the discrepancies between programs in different states is due to the discrepancies in funding each state receives.

"Adjusting for cost of living, the highest funded state received twice as much per child enrolled in Head Start as the lowest funded state," the report found.

In order to fully fund Head Start programs, the report estimates over $20 billion is needed.

"This is about triple the existing budget. We based this estimation on serving all 3- and 4-year-olds in poverty (or half of those in low-income families) in high-quality programs for 1,020 hours per year," the report said.

Moving forward, NIEER’s Director Steven Barnett, Ph.D. says action should be taken to figure out how to improve quality and reach of Head Start programs in all states.

"As Head Start is only one in a larger set of public programs supporting young children that varies greatly from one state to the next, we call for an independent, bipartisan study commission to develop an action plan supporting quality education for all young children and their families, particularly the most vulnerable, in every state and territory," Dr. Barnett said.

To read the full report and find out how your state ranks, see here.

Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor


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