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? Continue reading