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Federal Dollars Seek to Reverse Decline in Head Start Enrollment

Last month, Washington increased funding for the preschool program by $275 million. Additional funding for salaries may help address workforce shortages that have led to a steep decline in enrollment.

Preschoolers playing in a yard
Long Beach, CA - March 20: Students play on the playground at Educare Los Angeles at Long Beach, a very high-quality child care center in Long Beach on Wednesday, March 20, 2024 in Long Beach, CA.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)
In Brief:
  • The federal government has increased support for Head Start by $275 million.

  • The salary gap between Head Start and public school teacher salaries can be as high as $25,000, contributing to workforce shortages for the preschool program.

  • Total enrollment of 3- to 4-year-olds has declined by more than 20 percent over the past five years.

  • Last month, a federal spending bill included nearly $1 billion in additional dollars for child care. Most of the money will go to the Child Care and Development Block Grant, but funding for Head Start will increase by $275 million, to $12 billion.

    It's a fairly modest increase, but a boon to nonprofits such as the Children's Home Society of New Jersey, which provides services to 500 children under the age of 5. Now, the group should be able to serve more children, says Isaac Dorsey, its executive director, by making salaries more attractive to instructors.

    “Last year, my board supported me with using some of their money to increase the teacher salaries so that we stopped losing them,” Dorsey says. “I was at the point where I couldn't open classrooms because I didn't have enough teachers."

    Although Head Start professionals have some of the same job requirements as their peers in public education — such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree — the compensation historically has been fairly low. A recent report from the Urban Institute found a significant pay gap between Head Start and public kindergarten teachers — an average difference of $25,000. Additionally, data from the federal Office of Head Start reveals that salaries for Head Start teachers have actually decreased by 2 percent since 2010, after adjusting for inflation.

    Fewer Children Being Served

    When Head Start programs are unable to recruit and retain enough teachers, it obviously hampers their ability to offer robust slates of services or increase enrollment, leaving communities underserved. Head Start now "serves fewer 3- and 4-year-olds with each passing year" according to data collected by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) between 2018 and 2023.

    Source: National Institute for Early Education Research

    This decline — from more than 680,000 children in 2018 to just under 537,000 in 2023 — is due in part to the gap in compensation. “They can't spend the money because they have fewer classrooms, but they can't get teachers to open more classrooms," says Steven Barnett, co-director and founder of NIEER.

    Head Start has historically served the most vulnerable people in America, children in families that are at or below the poverty level. Early childhood education is one of the most important periods for brain growth and development and Head Start offers families a chance at enriching programs. It's "concerning" when they lack enough workers to meet the needs for services, says Tammy Mann, president of the Campagna Center, a family-focused nonprofit. “When children who are living furthest from opportunities on the margins can't access these kinds of programs, it certainly means that fewer children will likely enter school ready to learn.” Mann says.

    The additional funding allocated to Head Start will help program directors attract and maintain a workforce that may otherwise be lured by the superior pay scale of public education. It will help the Children's Home Society of New Jersey adjust salaries, while also dealing with rent increases.

    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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