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A Closer Look at Obama’s FY11 Budget: Head Start

Published:  February 12, 2010
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When the stimulus bill passed in February 2009, advocates for Head Start cheered. The legislation provided a $2-billion boost to Head Start, with $1.1 billion reserved for Early Head Start, the program that serves mothers and their babies up to age 3.  The infusion of funding allowed 64,000 more children to participate in the program.

But the money came with a question mark. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was designed to provide money for a short time -- only a year or two. What would happen to those newly participating children when funding ran out? Would Head Start centers have to reduce the availability of slots by 2011? Would they have to cut families off?

The budget announced by the Obama administration last week would not let that happen. The budget includes a $989 million boost in funding for Head Start compared to the 2010 appropriations – enough to sustain what the stimulus money started.  The full budget request for Head Start in fiscal year 2011 is about $8.2 billion.

Whether the extra dollars will materialize depends on how Congress votes this year in its annual spending bill. But advocates were heartened to see the Obama administration’s request for the additional funding that would erase concerns about what is being called the “funding cliff.” (The graph below shows how these funding levels compare across the last five years.)

“The $989 million allows us to continue this expansion and possibly grow it a little bit,” said Helen Blank, director of leadership and policy at the National Women’s Law Center, in a conference call about the budget co-hosted with the Center for Law and Social Policy last week.

 

 

Using ARRA funds, Head Start is opening its doors to 14,000 additional 3- and 4 year olds, and Early Head Start is expanding to include an additional 50,000 babies and infants, according to budget documents from the Administration for Children and Families, which administers the program. For Early Head Start, the expansion has nearly doubled its enrollees: the year before, only 62,000 were mothers and babies were served nationwide.

So while a nearly $1-billion boost in funding may sound like a windfall for Head Start, it looks differently when considered in the context of last year’s stimulus funding.  For Head Start centers that have hired teachers and opened new facilities to serve more children, a budget without this additional money would require cuts in services.
 
In addition to sustaining ARRA enrollments, the Obama budget would:
  • support a 2-percent cost-of-living adjustment in the salaries of Head Start staff members – a continuation of what was designated in the stimulus bill,
  • set aside funds for training and technical assistance, research, program support and a special expansion for Head Starts that serve migrant children and American Indians; and
  • provide funds to continue to pay for quality improvement among grantees who received quality-improvement dollars through the stimulus bill.
Improving the quality of Head Start programs has become a priority for the Administration for Children and Families. Observers in the early childhood community have wondered how Head Start should adapt to a 21st century landscape where state-funded pre-K has gained a foothold in some regions and where research has stressed that strong returns on investment only come with high-quality programs.  Last month, a long-awaited study showed that although Head Start children were better prepared for kindergarten than their non-Head Start peers, those gains dissipated by the end of 1st grade.
 
On the day that the Office of Head Start released the study's findings, it announced a new plan called the Roadmap to Excellence. The Roadmap includes initiatives that were authorized in 2007 but not yet carried out, including a plan to require Head Start grantees to compete for federal money if they are not meeting quality standards. No details have yet been released on what “re-competition,” as it’s called, would look like. But it has been highlighted by the Office of Head Start on several occasions recently, including in a visit to Los Angeles by director Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, which Early Ed Watch wrote about last month
 
We'll continue to follow how funding could lead to more improvements in Head Start, and we'll be watching to see whether the Obama administration's request for this funding boost gains traction on Capitol Hill. Stay tuned.

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