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Head Start and Other Federal Programs

One of the best-known federal programs for early childhood education is Head Start. Started in 1965, Head Start programs serve children from birth to age 5 as well as pregnant women. More than 80 percent of the children served are 3 or 4 years old. Most of the children meet poverty guidelines. Children who are in foster care, are homeless, or are in families receiving public assistance are eligible regardless of income level.

Head Start provides services to meet emotional, social health, nutritional, and psychological needs for about one million children and pregnant women nationwide each year in centers, family homes, and family child care homes. Programs serving children under age 3 and pregnant women are known as Early Head Start.

The programs — which collectively receive about $10 billion in federal aid (as of 2018) — are administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. However, the services are delivered by 1,700 agencies nationwide, resulting in a partnership of state, local, and federal organizations.

Many eligible children lack access to Head Start programs. Nationally, Head Start programs served less than 40 percent of the 3- and 4-year olds in poverty and less than 5 percent of those in poverty under age 3 in 2014-15, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. The figures vary widely across states, with the percentage of 4-year-olds in poverty served by Head Start programs ranging from 17 percent in Nevada to 100 percent in North Dakota.

The institute’s report also showed differences in quality, with teacher qualifications and pay varying widely.

While models differ, the most common model for Head Start and its Early Head Start programs is a center-based program offered five days a week for more than six hours a day. Early Head Start sometimes offers home-based services to work with the parent as the child’s primary teacher.

Head Start also includes services to families by American Indian/Alaskan Native programs as well as by Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs.

The federal government also provides funding for other early childhood programs. This includes support for the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, which serves pregnant women and families with children up to kindergarten; Child Care and Development Block Grants, which provide funds for child care subsidies and improving child care quality; Preschool Development Grants, which are awarded competitively to states; and some Title 1 funding, which school districts may use to pay for pre-K education.