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Head Start Wants to Back Off Its Mandate to Lengthen Operating Hours

Head Start no longer wants to require center-based programs to offer 1,020 hours per school year—a mandate that was part of new performance standards issued in 2016, but never put into effect. 

The federally funded preschool program for children from low-income families has released a "notice of proposed rulemaking" seeking comments on its proposal to roll back this mandate. Comments are due by May 28. 

In the notice, Head Start notes that Congress has never allocated the more than $1 billion that would be needed for centers to expand operating hours without having to make drastic cuts in the number of children and families served. Nearly 1 million children and pregnant women were served by Head Start in fiscal 2018.

And even if Congress were to come up with the money, "we believe programs are in the best position to decide whether or not full-day/full-year services work best for the communities they serve," the notice says.

Head Start, an office in the Department of Health and Human Services, has already put the mandate on hold once. Half of the nation's center-based programs were supposed to move to longer operating hours by August 2019, with the remainder offering longer hours by 2021. But written into the performance standards is a clause allowing the HHS secretary to grant a waiver if expanding hours would lead to fewer slots. In 2018, then-acting Secretary Eric Hargens announced he was putting the Head Start service hours expansion on a temporary pause rather than lose 41,000 seats.

The HHS secretary has the ability to waive the operating hours requirement again, but ending the mandate early would give Head Start grantees time to "thoughtfully plan" how they can use existing resources, according to the notice. Currently, 56 percent of Head Start programs operate a 5 day week, for more than 6 hours a day.

A Proposed End to a Controversial Head Start Change

Head Start's decision to expand operating hours in the first place was the most contentious element of the performance standards it released in 2016—the first time the standards had been updated since 1975. Currently, the standards don't spell out how many days and hours Head Start programs must operate, but 1,020 hours is equivalent to 170 days of 6 hours each. 

That expansion marked a major shift from the previous rule, which required only 3.5 hours per day and 128 days per year, or 448 hours. Head Start officials said that amount of time was just too short for preschool students to gain the skills needed for success when they enter school. 

But the majority of those who submitted comments to the original proposal opposed the idea of expanding center hours. Many Head Start providers said they were worried about expanding center hours without the money to pay for it. Others said that families in their community wanted a half-day option in order to spend more time with their children.

Head Start backed off some more prescriptive requirements—officials had originally proposed a 6-hour day and 180 days per year, before changing to the current 1,020 hour requirement—but program officials were steadfast in the argument that preschoolers needed more "dosage," or time in the classroom. 

"We believe, and research indicates, that strong child outcomes are best fostered through high-quality early-education programs that provide at least a full school day and full school year of services and that children are best served if Head Start programs continue to move toward this goal," Head Start officials said then.

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