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Families with young children — who are still not permitted to receive any of the Covid-19 vaccines — remain pretty squarely in the pandemic gloom. This situation has driven policymakers to focus their pandemic recovery policies on families’ needs — most notably with the Biden administration’s American Families Plan. In particular, that plan includes a proposal to make high-quality pre-K universally accessible. This makes sense for frazzled families in our post-pandemic moment. Early learning programs can improve children’s academic, social and (eventual) career trajectories while also supporting parents and caregivers’ ability to put food on the table.
But it’s one thing to pass a bill providing resources to establish universal pre-K across the country. It’s quite another to rapidly construct high-quality nationwide universal pre-K atop the country’s piecemeal, patchwork early education system. So, as Congress works to deliver on the American Families Plan’s promises, the plan should build around Head Start, the country’s largest and longest-running early education program, with the highest quality standards.
As we argued in a report published this summer, expanding Head Start would help address some of the challenges between our present and a universal, high-quality early education future.
First, current U.S. early learning programs are uneven in quality. Regulations and standards vary widely between programs and across state lines. As a result, in some settings, class sizes are too large to give young learners the dedicated attention they need to thrive. Some states require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and/or specialized training, while others don’t. Screening, data and quality improvement systems differ greatly by program and location.
The American Families Plan should build around Head Start, the country’s largest and longest-running early education program, with the highest quality standards.
To expand access while maintaining quality, any new universal pre-K system will have to connect and align existing state and local preschool systems. The easiest way to do this is to apply Head Start’s standards — or equivalent — across the entirety of the system (while providing supplemental funding to help programs upgrade to meet those standards). Head Start’s performance standards provide a comprehensive quality and equity framework for early education settings, covering curricula, instructional approaches, program enrollment, safety and much more. They have served as the gold standard for defining — and supporting — quality in early education settings in the nearly half a century since they were published. Now, they should serve as the foundational infrastructure for building a high-quality, universal early education system for the country.
Indeed, it’s encouraging to see Congress so far insisting that new pre-K seats funded by the American Families Plan be governed by standards that are aligned with many of Head Start’s. This would raise early education quality to a higher level across the country while also supporting increased access to pre-K.
Second, logistically speaking, it is no simple matter to find safe facilities and hire early educators to provide millions of new high-quality pre-K seats. It makes sense to start by building out from Head Start providers who have space and staff that would allow them to grow within their current programs. Policymakers should prioritize funding additional Head Start seats, especially in places with low public pre-K supply, including rural communities.
Third, expanding Head Start could enable greater socioeconomic integration in early learning programs. In our current system, the funding streams that support pre-K, Head Start and child care programs all have different eligibility criteria, which often result in socioeconomically and, in some cases, racially segregated classrooms. Harmonizing these standards would make it easier for local leaders to enroll diverse classrooms of children.
This hints at the best consequence of centering Head Start in the push for universal pre-K: A much broader group of children would benefit from the program’s equity-focused standards. More children with disabilities would be fully included and supported in preschool programs alongside their peers without disabilities. More young dual-language learners would have access to bilingual learning. All children would gain protections against expulsion, a protection that is especially important for Black children who are consistently and unfairly the victims of harsh discipline.
None of this means that Head Start is already perfect. These expansion efforts should also include a focus on improvement. Targeted efforts to raise staff wages and expand staff access to coaching and higher levels of education and training are important to ensure that programs can fully meet Head Start’s quality standards. The federal government should also hold programs accountable for advancing equity and ensuring individualized support for all children.
There is one other way that Head Start is particularly suited to be the foundation for current efforts to build toward universal pre-K: Its comprehensive model is designed for supporting children and families in tandem. This is more important now than ever. These last 18 grueling months have steamrolled U.S. families. With most schools, early education programs and child care programs closed, working parents and caregivers have juggled health risks, economic precarity and anxieties about the pandemic’s impacts on their children’s development. Sadly, predictably, historically marginalized families faced — and face —great challenges, such as unemployment, underemployment, food insecurity, housing instability, higher risks of serious infection and much more.
Fortunately, every year, Head Start gives about a million young American children early learning opportunities while also helping their families meet a wide range of educational, health, housing, nutrition and professional needs. Head Start programs offer holistic community supports that can dramatically change children’s (and their families’) lives.
Universal early childhood education programs will almost certainly be good for kids and ease some of the pandemic stresses on families. But we can do better than good. This moment demands it. For preschool, that means building up from what we already have and know works: a comprehensive, family-centered early education model like Head Start’s.
The views expressed in this piece are the authors’ alone.
Dr. Conor P. Williams is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a partner at the Children’s Equity Project.
Dr. Shantel Meek is a professor of practice and the founding director of the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University.