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Head Start Policy Book

President Bush's Plan to Prepare All Children for Kindergarten
Head Start: Where Are We Now?

Early childhood, which is the period in a child's life from birth through age 5, is a critical time for children to develop the physical, emotional, social, and cognitive skills they will need to be successful in school and the rest of their lives. What children learn before coming to school is vital to their success.

The federal government awards grants to local public and private agencies to implement Head Start programs that provide comprehensive child development services to children and families. Intended primarily for preschoolers from low-income families, Head Start's mission is to promote school readiness to enable each child to develop to his or her fullest potential. Children in Head Start also receive comprehensive health services, including immunizations, physical and dental exams and treatment, and nutritional services. Head Start now serves more than 900,000 children each year, yet only 20% of these children are enrolled in programs that provide full-day, full-year services for working families. President Bush has requested $6.8 billion in Head Start funding in his Fiscal Year 2004 budget request, an increase of $148 million over the previous year.

In the 1998 Reauthorization of Head Start, Congress emphasized promoting school readiness. This was based, in part, on recent research showing that improving the educational components of preschool programs is the best predictor of children's future success in school. Congress set specific educational goals, including a requirement that at least fifty percent of Head Start teachers have an Associate degree or beyond by 2003, and required prioritized inclusion of reading and math readiness skills in Head Start curricula.

Beyond Head Start, federal legislation has created several other preschool programs aimed primarily at enhancing the development of poor and disabled children. These include the Title I preschool program to help prepare children for school in high poverty communities; Early Head Start to promote healthy prenatal care for pregnant mothers and to enhance the development of infants and children under age 3; and the Special Education Preschool Grants and State Grants program and the Special Education Grants for Infants and Families program, which between them provide funds for states to build early education programs for children with disabilities between birth and age 5. In addition to these preschool programs with an educational focus, the federal government provides states with $4.8 billion through the Child Care and Development Block Grant to pay for child care programs, and states have also used as much as $4 billion annually from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant program to pay for child care that serves working poor and low-income mothers.

These federal programs are no longer the only preschool and child care programs available to low-income families. Since 1980, the number of states offering a pre-kindergarten alternative to Head Start rose from 10 to 39 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, a recent study of U.S. early childhood care and education indicates every state provides at least some funding to make access to early childhood care and education available to low-income families through Child Care Development Funds (CCDF) and TANF. With annual state spending on preschool education and child care currently exceeding $5 billion, Head Start no longer is the only choice for low-income parents in many communities.

Both state and federal governments fund a wide variety of programs that are either intended to enhance children's educational development or that could, with some adjustments, do a better job of preparing children for school. But because these programs have developed independently, they are not easily coordinated to best serve the children and families who need them. There are obstacles that can be addressed in order to ensure that early childhood programs focus on learning and cognitive development as well as social and emotional development. These include:

  • Most states have limited alignment between what children are doing before they enter school and what is expected of them once they are in school;
  • Early childhood programs are seldom evaluated based on how they prepare children to succeed in school; and
  • There is not enough information for early childhood teachers, parents, grandparents, and child care providers on ways to prepare children to be successful in school.

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