New rules for Head Start, the federal pre-K education and health program for low-income children and their families, were unveiled Thursday, in a significant overhaul of the 52-year-old program hatched as part of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society reforms that now enrolls more than 1 million children a year.
A change that increases program hours is among the most prominent new features, with a requirement that Head Start centers offer full-day child care over the course of a full school year by 2021. There is some flexibility attached to that requirement, something that Head Start program administrators around the country had lobbied for.
The new standards, which also strengthen education standards and raise professional development requirements, “are the most sweeping revision to our standards since they were first created in 1975,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
The revision of the standards has been in the works in some fashion for nearly a decade. They apply to Head Start, which serves 3- and 4-year-olds and their families, and Early Head Start, serving children ages 0 to 3 and their families. There are 140 Head Start and Early Head Start programs in California. The budget for the statewide program, which enrolls 108,421 children, was $985 million in 2015-16.
“It’s huge,” Christopher Maricle, executive director of the California Head Start Association, said of the changes. “These standards drive program operations in every Head Start grantee we have.”
The standards are voluminous, too, and are contained in a 621-page document that Head Start program administrators were just starting to digest Thursday. Training sessions and webinars that are to stretch through 2017 also began Thursday.
The rules governing program hours, to be phased in over five years, were the changes that drew the most attention.
“These standards drive program operations in every Head Start grantee we have,” said Christopher Maricle, executive director of the California Head Start Association.
As originally proposed by the Obama administration, minimum program hours were to be increased from 3-½ hours a day for at least 128 days a year to 6 hours a day for at least 180 days a year. Head Start administrators and staff around the country pushed back hard during a public comment period last summer, saying more flexibility needed to be built in to the rules. The standards released Thursday instead changed the requirement to a minimum of 1,020 hours of “planned classroom operations” over the course of at least eight months a year.
“Upon initial review, these new standards respond to the community’s unified voice urging for increased flexibility” – including about the length of program days – “to allow for the local program design that enables Head Start to address the unique needs of the diverse communities we serve,” Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, said.
Maricle said that maintaining quality, increasing local program flexibility and simplifying bureaucratic requirements were the key points in discussions leading to the new standards.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell said that the changes “will cut a substantial amount of red tape” for program operators and cut the current 1,400 regulatory requirements by 30 percent.
The new standards also require Head Start centers to increase the amount of services to children learning English and those with disabilities.