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Quick Thoughts on Head Start Expansion in Obama UPK Proposal

In addition to a new state partnership for universal pre-k, the Obama administration's more detailed early childhood agenda released yesterday appears to call for an expansion of Head Start. This is interesting for two reasons: First, it seems to take the $7 billion in Head Start funds off the table as a potential offset for part of the costs of new pre-k investments. In general I think that's a good thing: For all the challenges it faces, Head Start is just about the only funding stream for any kind of preschool for poor kids in states like Mississippi, and eliminating it or shifting it to a state pre-k program would leave adrift very disadvantaged kids in the states that do least for poor kids. This proposal also seems to imply that the Obama administration wants to transition Head Start to a program for infants, toddlers, and three year olds, with pre-k as the primary program serving four-year-olds. The administration's recent opening of new joint 0-5 Head Start-Early Head Start funding opportunities in a limited number of geographies could be seen as a strategy to build a bridge in this direction. In a sense, this feels to me like another kind of "pass the buck" strategy on Head Start--we don't know how to make it highly effective for four-year-olds, so let's push it down to infants and toddlers (because we think it will work better with this group? because we think mediocre performance won't matter as much with babies?). But the reality is that Head Start remains the biggest single public funding stream for pre-k, and the only source of pre-k for low-income kids in some states, and if we're serious about improving low-income kids' access to quality pre-k in this fiscal environment, we've can't afford to ignore or pass the buck on this program.

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