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New Head Start Rules Lengthen Program Year, Cut Red Tape

The Office of Head Start released a final version of the Head Start performance standards Thursday that will require many programs to offer a longer day and year to children by 2021. 

These are the first revisions to the standards since 1975. They lay out new guidelines that are intended to raise professional development requirements and educational standards, while also reducing the red tape that centers currently have to deal with. Prior to this revision, Head Start had 1,400 regulatory standards. The number of standards has been cut by 30 percent. 

The major changes—and the ones that comes with the biggest price tag—are the changes in the Head Start day and year. Currently, a Head Start program must operate for at least 3.5 hours a day and 128 days a year; the new rules will increase that to at least 1,020 hours a year for Head Start and 1,380 hours a year for center-based Early Head Start programs, which serve infants through age 3. It sets no specific day-length or year requirement.

The proposed rule was a bit more prescriptive—it would have required Head Start programs to run for at least 6 hours a day and 180 days per year. But many programs that run double sessions to increase the number of children who have access balked at that idea. "By changing our program to five full days, half of our children will be without a classroom and an opportunity to grow," said one commenter during the public comment period. 

The new hour-based requirement "will give programs more flexibility to design their program schedules to better meet children and community needs as well as align with local school district calendars, where appropriate," the Head Start office said in its comments on the new rules. 

The rule estimates the cost of full implementation by August 2021 to be about $1 billion more than the $8.6 billion already allocated to Head Start. In fiscal year 2016, Congress appropriated $294 million to increase the number of children attending Head Start for a full school day and year. President Barack Obama's 2017 budget proposal requests an additional $292 million for Head Start.

If Congress doesn't come through with the money, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has the authority to modify these requirements. 

The standards also reaffirm the program's commitment to serving English-language learners, children with disabilities, and vulnerable children. For example, the new standards require that programs provide necessary supportive services for children who have delays significant enough to interfere with school success, but who are not eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The standards require that programs also actively recruit children in foster care and homeless children. 

The standards do not create any change to the process started in 2011 that requires lower-performing Head Start programs to compete for continued federal funding. That program is called the designation renewal system, and ultimately all Head Start programs will be moving to five-year grant cycles, as opposed to the open-ended funding that existed before that change.

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