Full-day, school-year programs should be the default for Head Start

Full-day, school-year programs should be the default for Head Start
© SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, as President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address MORE tweeted attacks on “failed” media coverage of the Russia investigation, his administration quietly proposed new regulations that would undermine learning for low-income preschoolers. It’s one more example of how the president’s Twitter feed distracts public attention from policy changes with harmful effects.

Head Start, a federal program that supports early learning and development for nearly 1 million children in poverty and their families, is the nation’s largest preschool program. Since its founding in 1965, it has improved the lives of 36 million children. Head Start alums are more likely to enter school kindergarten-ready, graduate high school, and be healthy adults.

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Unfortunately, the Trump administration has proposed undoing an important Obama-era regulation that expanded the length of the Head Start day. In 2016, as part of a larger overhaul designed to improve Head Start quality, regulations lengthened the minimum Head Start day from 3.5 hours to six. The change reflected research showing full-day programs lead to greater learning for kids. In a recent study of Head Start programs where children make greater learning gains, Ashley LiBetti and I also found that one thing these programs had in common was that they offer full-school-day programs.  

The longer-day requirements also acknowledged that Head Start students are more likely to have mothers who work outside the home compared to when the program launched. Most families today need full-day childcare, but roughly half of Head Start programs offered only part-day services in 2016. Part-day programs don’t meet the needs of working families. By providing care that makes it possible for families to work, Head Start can help lift families out of poverty.

The Trump administration claims its proposal would give programs flexibility to meet local needs, and prevent reductions in Head Start slots. Both these explanations are incorrect.

Although the Obama-era regulations make six hours per day, and 180 days per year, the new minimum expectation for Head Start services, they also offer flexibility for Head Start grantees to propose alternative schedules tailored to local needs. The current rule also allows the secretary of Health and Human Services to delay full implementation of the full-day requirement until Congress appropriates enough funding to allow all Head Start grantees to meet it without reducing the number of children served. And the secretary did delay the rule in 2018 (the first year it would have taken effect).

Even with these delays, the rule was working, though: from 2015 to 2018, the percentage of full-school day, full-week Head Start slots rose from 46 percent to 56 percent. But more than one in three Head Start children still attend only part-day programs.

The Obama-era rule doesn’t impose a straitjacket on programs. It makes school-day, school-year programs the default expectation for Head Start, but one from which programs can be exempt as needed. Prior to this rule, when part-day programs were the default, some Head Start programs that wanted to offer longer days to boost kids’ learning or help parents work believed they could not if doing so meant reducing children served. The rule gives them flexibility to make that choice. It also creates an expectation that Congress should increase Head Start funding to cover the cost of longer days.

As often is the case, money is the real issue here: The Trump administration doesn’t want to spend so much on Head Start, and has not requested sufficient funding to meet the longer-day requirements. That’s their prerogative, but using this regulation as a backdoor budget strategy harms kids.

Since January 2017, the Trump administration has pursued an agenda — from “public charge” changes that discourage immigrant parents from enrolling native-born children in Head Start and Medicaid, to blocking EPA rules that protect children’s health — that undermines the well-being and development of America’s most vulnerable youngsters. Changing Head Start regulations is just the latest episode in a troubling trend, whose costs will be felt long after President Trump leaves office.

Sara Mead is a partner with Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit focused on underserved children. She directs the organization’s early childhood work. Follow her on Twitter @saramead.