Head Start is a great program, capable of achieving even greater results. While the resources to fund Head Start are significant, more work is needed to achieve the ultimate program goal of closing the readiness gap between Head Start children and their more advantaged peers as they enter kindergarten. Studies indicate that children enrolled in Head Start make some progress, but still lag behind national norms in all aspects of school readiness. Data from the Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) and the findings of a Head Start Impact study suggest that Head Start participants show progress on some measures after completing a year in Head Start, but not in others, and on balance remain below the national average. These data indicate that in some cases Head Start children are entering kindergarten without the knowledge and skills that are good predictors of later school success.
In addition, a March 2005 report from the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned the financial control system in the Head Start program is flawed and failing to prevent multi-million dollar financial abuses that cheat poor children, taxpayers, and law-abiding Head Start operators.
In the 109th Congress, Republicans led the House in passing the School Readiness Act to close the readiness gap, address weaknesses in the Head Start financial control system, and strengthen early childhood services for disadvantaged children. Once again in the 110th Congress, Republicans will work to strengthen the program through a measure that would:
Strengthen Head Start’s Academic Components by:
- Emphasizing “what works” in preparing disadvantaged children for school. The proposal would strengthen Head Start’s academic standards by emphasizing cognitive development and the results of scientifically-based research in topics critical to children’s school readiness (including language, pre-reading, pre-mathematics, and English language acquisition). By strengthening the academic components of Head Start and maintaining comprehensive services, the legislation improves upon the good work that Head Start is doing in centers across the country.
- Improving teacher quality in Head Start. The proposal would ensure that a greater number of Head Start teachers are adequately trained and educated in early childhood development, particularly in teaching the fundamental skills of language, pre-reading, and pre-mathematics. In order to ensure this, the measure would require that at least 50 percent of all Head Start teachers nationwide have a bachelor’s or advanced degree in early childhood education or related field by September 30, 2013. Likewise, the bill would require that within two years, all Head Start teachers hired must have at least an associate degree in early childhood education or related field; or be enrolled in a program of study leading to an associate degree in early childhood education.
- Strengthening academic quality standards. The bill establishes education performance standards to ensure Head Start students develop language knowledge and skills; pre-reading knowledge and skills that prepare children for early literacy in schools; pre-mathematics knowledge and skills; cognitive abilities related to academic achievement and child development; social and emotional development, early learning, and school success and sustained academic gains; and in the case of limited-English proficient children, progress toward acquisition of the English language.
- Requiring no new testing. The proposal would maintain current law with respect to regular local assessments of the academic progress being made by children enrolled in Head Start. No new testing would be mandated under the bill. Local Head Start grantees would be subject to the same three-year review (“triennial review”) process as they are under current law, but would be evaluated based on criteria that are more straightforward and reflective of the progress being made in preparing children for school. The triennial review has been strengthened by the addition of unscheduled visits, to ensure an accurate view of operations.
Improve Fiscal and Program Management by:
- Creating more competition in the Head Start system. Under the proposal, to receive a Head Start grant, the agency must submit a comprehensive plan to the Department of Health and Human Services. The application would be reviewed under a new system established by an expert panel charged with crafting a process through which a Head Start agency’s ability to provide a quality comprehensive early learning program that meets the educational, health, and nutritional needs of the children and families it services would be evaluated. The bill requires local Head Start operators that fail to meet these requirements to compete against other potential grantees when their grants come up for renewal. The U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services, who oversees the Head Start program, would retain the right to terminate a Head Start grant at any time during the five-year grant cycle.
- Seeking better safeguards against financial abuse. The legislation would require Head Start operators to meet a range of financial disclosure requirements as a condition of receiving and keeping their federal Head Start grants. Grantees will have to be overseen by a local governance board that provides direction and actively oversees all program activities, and will be required to document that they have strong fiscal controls in place, including the employment of well-qualified financial personnel with a history of successful management of public or private organizations. All board members would be required to receive training in management responsibilities and obligations, ethics, and financial literacy and management and must assure active, independent, and informed governance of the Head Start agency, including independent oversight of the financial and management practices of such agency. Likewise, in order to receive federal funds, a Head Start agency would be required to document strong fiscal controls, including the employment of well-qualified fiscal staff with a history of successful management of a public or private organization.
- Improving disclosure and transparency of Head Start. The bill would require all Head Start grantees to make available to the public, an annual report detailing how money was spent, the sources from which funds were received, and how the agency has performed in terms of meeting the requirements of the law.
Establish a Greater Role for States, Local School Districts, and Parents by:
- Creating a greater role for states and local school districts in Head Start. The proposal requires Head Start applicants to have objectives in place for improving school readiness. The bill also requires organizations entrusted with federal Head Start funds to demonstrate active partnerships with local school districts focused on facilitating smooth transitions to kindergarten for their students.
- Strengthening the role of parents. Parents have long played an important role in local Head Start programs. To ensure parents continue to have the opportunity for involvement in their children’s early childhood education, the bill strengthens opportunities for parents to ensure Head Start programs are operating effectively. The bill ensures parents will have better access to information about how their children’s Head Start centers are being run; improves disclosure and requires the board to act in consultation with a parent policy council; and requires Head Start grantees to demonstrate strong parent involvement and establish activities to develop parent skills to support their children’s educational development.
Expanding the Reach and Impact of Head Start Programs by:
- Addressing the unique needs of children in migrant & seasonal and Indian Head Start programs. The bill strengthens support for the migrant and seasonal, and Indian Head Start programs by: directing a guaranteed share of funding to both Indian and migrant and seasonal Head Start while allowing time for a comprehensive analysis to reveal how the populations are being served and ensuring children in migrant and seasonal Head Start programs are making progress in English language acquisition along with all other academic components.
- Removing barriers to ease enrollment of homeless children. The measure would ensure that homeless children are identified and prioritized for enrollment in Head Start programs by allowing homeless families to apply to, enroll in, and attend Head Start programs while required documents, such as proof of residency, immunization and other medical records, and birth certificates are obtained within a reasonable time frame.
- Preserving all current health and nutrition services for Head Start children. All existing health and nutrition-related components of Head Start would be preserved and extended. In addition, the bill would increase the emphasis on physical activity and healthy habits for children in Head Start.