“I’m a director who spends more time figuring out how to cover staffing than how to improve quality.”
That quote, from Angela Capone, director of Los Angeles-based Head Start program Para los Niños, describes the crisis facing Head Start classrooms right now — and how the state can help to fix them. Statewide, hundreds of Head Start classrooms are closed due to their inability to hire and retain teachers and staff. This means thousands of eligible children and their families are going without services that they deserve — and that the federal government is paying for. With a nearly $100 billion surplus, California can and should invest in Head Start to ensure that classrooms stay open.
To be eligible for Head Start services, families must be below the federal poverty level, a shockingly low $27,750 for a family of four. Homeless children, children in foster care and — due to a recent federal change — children in families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits, or food stamps, also qualify. In addition to early learning, families enrolled in Head Start receive access to medical, dental and immunization services, parenting classes, referrals to other social support services and leadership opportunities for parents. Head Start helps to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty — children who attend Head Start programs as preschoolers are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college and are less likely to live in poverty or use public assistance programs as adults.
“Head Start staff understand the important role our program plays in the lives of children and families. While everyone is committed to ensuring we are responsive to child and family needs, the growing teacher shortage is having a dramatic impact on our program,” Capone said. “My staff is operating on a shoestring — if one staff member calls in sick, I will likely have to close the classroom that day because there is no one to cover it. These are kids coming from really challenging backgrounds. When kids show up not knowing who they will see that day, that adds instability in their lives when we should be a source of stability.”
The root of the staffing crisis is the very low wages paid to early learning teachers, including teachers in Head Start. The average Head Start teacher with a bachelor’s degree earns an average of $41,000 a year — $25,000 less than a kindergarten teacher. Head Start is a federally funded program, and programs nationwide struggle with inadequate teacher pay. However, the problem is particularly acute in California, with its high cost of living and rapidly increasing minimum wage. Recent federal initiatives to increase Head Start teacher pay have not been successful.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. California can support Head Start and provide funding to ensure that we pay our teachers what they deserve, so that they can provide the services and learning that our children deserve. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s own Master Plan for Early Learning and Care supported the value of “targeted universalism” or serving the neediest children first. This makes supporting Head Start an obvious choice.
If Head Start programs are unable to staff classrooms, California may have to reduce its Head Start enrollment by thousands of seats, depriving children and families of a life-changing program. Gov. Newsom recently released a budget proposal with an unprecedented $97.5 billion surplus – but declined to provide any funding to support increased reimbursement rates for child care providers, including Head Start programs.
With a modest investment of $50 million, California would join fourteen other states, including Oregon, in investing state funds to strengthen and expand Head Start. We urge the Legislature and governor to provide funding for Head Start teacher salaries so that programs can begin to reopen classrooms to serve the neediest children and their families. Our whole state will be better for it.
Anna Ioakimedes is the director of governmental affairs at Head Start California.
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