A Very American Story: Access Determined by Zip Code

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We’ve accepted in American political discourse and rhetoric that “a zip code should not determine a child’s future.” But our public policies have a long way to go, especially in the domain of early childhood education, one of the most effective policy strategies for ensuring low-income children are prepared for academic and lifelong success. In fact, a report published last month by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) reveals that an eligible child’s access to Head Start — the only federal pre-k program — is constrained by where he/she resides.

Head Start was first instituted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’’s War on Poverty. The program served low-income children long before most states adopted state-funded pre-k programs and specifically aimed to ameliorate the effects of growing up in poverty through comprehensive child development programs. Started as a niche summer program that served 560,000 children, today Head Start serves nearly one million children across the country year round.

NIEER’s State(s) of Head Start is the first report in Head Start’s 50-year history to examine Head Start enrollment, funding, quality, and duration across the states. It reveals that only 18% of low-income three-year-olds and 21 percent of low-income four-year-olds receive Head Start services. Additionally, it shows that access to Head Start varies greatly by state. For example, among three- and four-year-olds living in poverty, 100% of eligible children in North Dakota attended Head Start programs in 2014-2015, whereas just 16% of eligible children in Nevada were enrolled in Head Start programs. In other words a poor three- or four-year-old in Nevada has less than a one in five chance of attending Head Start, while a poor child in North Dakota has a 100% chance of attending Head Start.

Even less three-year-olds living in poverty across the country have access to Head Start. The number of enrolled three-year-olds as a percent of children in poverty ranges from 2.7% in Nevada to 13% in the District of Columbia. The picture for low-income children in Nevada is concerning. There is a large population of children living in poverty, but the state has the lowest percentage of children living in poverty enrolled in Head Start of any state. In certain states the lack of Head Start spots would be less concerning because they have robust state pre-k programs that serve a high percentage of low-income children. This is not the case in Nevada.  Nevada’s public pre-k program is not serving these vulnerable children. Overall, only 6.72% of four-year-olds in the state are enrolled in Head Start or state funded pre-k.

Further complicating access inequities is the fact that states with large Hispanic populations are receiving less money per child enrolled in Head Start. Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas — all states with large Latinx populations — receive less funding per Head Start child than the national average.

In the report, authors Barnett and Friedman-Krauss write: “We can think of no reason that poor children in one state are less deserving of a strong early childhood program than those in another.”

So what actually explains these inequities?

One explanation is the fact that Head Start has been underfunded many times throughout history. The other explanation is the complicated manner in which Head Start is funded. Head Start is a direct federal-to-local program. Money flows from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to individual grantees which include school districts and local non-profits.

Head Start does not utilize a funding formula analogous to the ones in K-12 education where a certain amount of money follows an individual child. State Head Start funding is tied to the funding each state received historically. Allocations for each state have basically been frozen at 1981 levels. As a result, funding levels haven’t been adjusted to population changes that have occurred over the last 35 years, and states with growing populations and growing populations of low-income children are not receiving enough funding to meet the burgeoning needs of their state.

One small tweak that might solve this problem is modifying the designation renewal system — the system which requires low-performing Head Start grantees to compete for grants and can result in terminating the grants of weak grantees — to ensure that when the Office of Head Start terminates the grants of weak grantees they can reduce the state’s overall total and send that funding to a state where children are under-served. But that is only a small solution and it would not start impacting children until five years after a new Head Start reauthorization.

The real solution is increasing funding in Head Start. NIEER estimates it would cost an additional $20 billion to serve half of all low income three and four year-olds nationwide. While Head Start has bipartisan support, its hard to imagine Congress deciding to increase its funding so dramatically (Head Start funding in 2015 was 8.5 billion).

In the meantime, NIEER’s findings highlight the need for greater coordination between Head Start and state-funded pre-k programs to ensure all eligible children have access to quality early childhood learning experiences. Since 2010, state-funded pre-k programs have consistently served about 29% of eligible children. Together with Head Start, these programs serve about 38% of eligible children. This means Head Start and state pre-k must work together to meet the needs of children and families, and ensure that there are viable early childhood education options for all the most vulnerable children in each state.