Background & Analysis

The Federal Education Budget Project’s background and analysis pages provide detailed information on federal PreK-12 and higher education programs and spending.

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The federal Head Start program is a comprehensive early learning program for preschool-aged children of families in poverty, designed to meet children’s emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs. When the program began in 1965 and 1966 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Head Start was an eight-week summer program in a few low-income communities. In a short time it grew into a half-day program available during the school year, and today it serves more than 962,000 children, including 848,000 between the ages of 3 and 5. Reauthorized by Congress in 2007 through the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act and administered by the Office of Head Start in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, Head Start is the federal government’s only pre-K program.

Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Congressional Justifications, Fiscal Years 2002-2014
*Figures are for Head Start and do not include Early Head Start enrollment.

Head Start is designed to serve children in families in poverty. The median income of Head Start families is $22,714 a year, according to a 2011 report from Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES). To be eligible to enroll their children in Head Start, families must have incomes at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level ($23,550 for a family of four in 2013) or meet other criteria, such as being foster parents or having children with special needs. In some cases, families at 130 percent of the poverty level may be eligible to participate if spots remain in their local programs after all interested families at 100 percent of poverty have registered. Three-quarters of Head Start children live with a parent who is working full-time, according to the FACES survey.

Head Start programs are run by organizations, local government agencies, or school districts that receive five-year renewable grants from the federal government. About 10 percent of grants go to school districts that administer Head Start programs. In 2013, 1,654 organizations nationwide – including school districts, local government agencies, non-profit and for-profit organizations – received Head Start grants.

Congress’s 2007 reauthorization of Head Start included several reforms to the program, including placing a greater focus on the credentials of Head Start teachers. By 2011, all Head Start lead teachers had to have at least an associate’s degree in early childhood or a related field. By 2013, half of them must have at least a bachelor's degree in early childhood. (If their degree isn't specifically for early childhood, it must be in a related field and they must have experience teaching preschoolers.) In 2013, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, 62 percent of teachers had obtained the required bachelor’s degree.

Another reform enacted in 2007 required low-performing Head Start organizations to compete for renewal of their grants against other organizations in their geographic area that want to operate Head Start centers. The Office of Head Start launched this process, known as “recompetition,” in 2011 when it published its first list of grantees nationwide failing to meet certain standards of financial stewardship or program quality. For more on recompetition, read Reforming Head Start: What Recompetition Means for the Federal Government's Pre-K Program.

Funding for Head Start has grown modestly over the past several years, spurred in part by additional funds provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In fiscal years 2011 and 2012, Congress approved funding to support the expanded levels of enrollment made possible by the ARRA. In fiscal year 2013, Congress approved $6.45 billion for Head Start, which equated to $7,763 per pupil. Approximately 831,440 children enrolled in Head Start programs in 2013, down from 842,931 in 2012.

Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Congressional Justifications, Fiscal Years 2002-2013
*Figures are for Head Start and do not include Early Head Start funding.

Early Head Start

In 1995, Congress approved an extension of Head Start known as Early Head Start, which is designed to serve impoverished mothers and their children from birth to age 3. Some grantees are home-visitation programs in which social workers visit mothers at home to provide support for breast-feeding, nutritional advice, and resources to promote children’s healthy development. Others are center-based child care programs. Some are a hybrid of the two.

In 2013, 112,025 children were enrolled in Early Head Start. The program received $1.28 billion in federal funding for fiscal year 2013.

Published Feb 11 2014 17:45