Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

Federal officials have come up with promising, new plans for improving Head Start — including longer program days and years — but this growth can only happen if Congress provides the necessary funding.

Back in 2007, Congress asked the Office of Head Start to update its performance standards.

The result is a newly released proposal, the “Head Start Performance Standards,” from the Administration for Children and Families, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“This is the first comprehensive overhaul of the standards since they were first published in 1975,” according to EdCentral, a New America Foundation blog. “Both the early education landscape and our knowledge of the science of early learning have changed dramatically in the last 40 years, and understandably, many of the performance standards were in need of an update.”

EdCentral adds: “These new standards give Head Start a much-needed makeover without changing the core purpose and function of the program. The proposed standards are up for public comment until August 18, 2015.”

What the Standards Propose

The revised standards would “improve the quality of Head Start services so that programs have a stronger impact on children’s learning and development,” the HHS proposal says.

Under the new regulations, Head Start would also cut red tape by streamlining and reorganizing “the regulatory structure to improve regulatory clarity and transparency…” And it would be easier for current and potential grantees to work with the program.

“A high-quality Head Start program can change the course of a child’s life, and engage the potential of the entire family,” Linda K. Smith wrote in a recent blog. Smith is HHS’s Deputy Assistant Secretary and Inter-Departmental Liaison for Early Childhood Development.

“The revisions will help Head Start programs focus more on child outcomes than on processes and plans,” Smith says. “They put in place higher standards for curriculum and professional development based on research and best practice. The proposed Standards strengthen Head Start’s commitment to comprehensive services, including health and family engagement, which are a hallmark of Head Start and vital to helping children succeed and working families flourish.”

Among the biggest changes: “that all center-based programs operate for a minimum of a full school day and a full school year.”

“Many Head Start programs already serve children in full-day/full-year programs. But, children in programs operating under Head Start’s current minimums spend less than half of the time in the classroom that children in full school day, full school year programs do. Parents intuitively understand what strong and mounting evidence from research tells us – when children are in programs that last longer, they learn more.”

Funding Challenges

One daunting caveat about these proposals is that more time in Head Start will cost more money.

Increasing “the length of a Head Start operation’s day and the number of days it must operate per year—would come with a hefty $1 billion price tag,” Education Week reports.

“President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal would increase Head Start’s funding to cover both the school day and year changes and to pay for other Head Start initiatives. But, the spending increase is far from guaranteed.

“Head Start is currently funded for about $8.6 billion. The president’s fiscal 2016 budget requests $10.1 billion for the program.”

Congress could follow suit. But a blog post from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget warns:

“By contrast, under the funding provided by the House Republican bill, either more than 570,000 children in Head Start would not receive the full-day, full-year services they need to succeed, the program would serve some 140,000 fewer children as compared to the President’s budget, or some combination of both.”

Take Action

Advocates can take action by asking members of Congress to invest more in Head Start and by responding to the proposed revisions.

Last month, Blanca Estela Enriquez, the director at the Office of Head Start (OHS), wrote on her blog:

“I hope you will take time to read these proposed Standards, and to comment on both the parts you agree with and the parts you disagree with. We take each comment seriously. This is your opportunity to influence the future of Head Start and ensure the voice of your community is heard. We are seeking diverse perspectives. We will accept comments between June 19 and Aug. 18, 2015. Our team at the Office of Head Start will then consider all public comments before publishing a final rule.”

“One of the founding principles of Head Start is that the key to our success lies in the strong bonds between programs, communities, and families. To that end, leadership does not lie solely in the hands of the Office of Head Start, so much as in the hands of every parent, teacher, director, governing body, and community member doing the work to help Head Start children succeed. We at OHS are working hard to ensure all grantees have the supports needed to be recognized by your community as the best place for children to learn, grow, and flourish.”