National Head Start Association Says Congress Should Model Universal Pre-K on Its Early Learning Program

After months of intense negotiations on Capitol Hill, preschool for all is still considered a critical part of the human infrastructure reconciliation package. That package is a component of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better agenda which aims to rebuild the middle class by creating jobs, enabling more Americans to join and remain in the labor force, and growing the economy for working families. 

President Biden expressed his commitment to universal pre-K in a recent visit to the Capitol Child Development Center in Hartford, Connecticut.  

“We cannot be competitive in the 21st century in this global economy if we fail to invest,” Biden said. 

UnidosUS agrees. Universal access to high-quality pre-K could be a game changer for Latino children who make up 26% of three- to four-year-olds and are projected to represent one-third of this age population by 2060. U.S. Department of Education data shows lower enrollment in early education programs for Latino three- to four-year-olds (43%) in 2019 compared to the national enrollment rate of 49%. Preschool for all would be a historic and transformative investment in young children—it would be the largest expansion of free education since public high school was established 100 years ago. 

UnidosUS believes that access to high-quality early childhood education (ECE) is the foundation toward educational equity, a core American value promising equal opportunity in the United States. Research shows that these programs have significant impacts upon children’s long-term outcomes due to the rapid cognitive, social, and emotional skills developed before age five.  

For half a century, the National Head Start Association (NHSA) has been a leader in early childhood development and education, advocating so that every vulnerable child has access to the Head Start model of support for the whole child. For 55 years, the Head Start model (inclusive of Early Head Start, Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships, Head Start, American Indian Alaska Native Head Start and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start) has served 37 million children. 

Today, NHSA experts and collaborators are using the knowledge gained from this well-established program to encourage Congress to act on universal pre-K and prioritize equity by integrating the Head Start model into the foundation of an expanded early childhood system. UnidosUS supports this effort, and, on September 1, we joined NHSA and national partners in a letter to Congress. followed by a roundtable discussion hosted by NHSA on the benefits of the Head Start program as the backbone of universal pre-K.  

“The willingness of Congress to commit to preschool for all is a thrilling prospect. Universalizing access to preschool recognizes that early learning and care are so critical to America’s success and future, that everyone needs access,” said Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, noting that Head Start programs have contributed to higher workforce participation among parents, increases to family earnings, and economic growth, while strengthening families and helping them weather crises. Despite serving more than 750,000 three-and four-year-olds each year, only one in three income-eligible children currently access Head Start preschool through federal funding. 

But Vinci also challenged policymakers to ensure that an expanded early childhood system reflects equity, provides high-quality services, and is accountable to children and their families. 

“If the last 60 years have taught us anything, it’s that universal access alone cannot ensure equitable outcomes for all of our nation’s children and families,” she continued. 

Panelists at NHSA’s roundtable also addressed the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and highlighted the opportunity to transform early childhood education for future generations.  

“We need to design a system that meets the moment,” noted Dr. Shantel Meek, founder of the Children’s Equity Project, which focuses on closing opportunity gaps and dismantling systemic racism in learning settings. She went on to explain that science shows kids learn best when they’re safe, healthy, and loved, and that any attempts at improving already existing Head Start programs and expanding on them must consider the social, economic, and logistical impacts of the pandemic. Plus, she said, any work on universal pre-K should center on the before and after of that educational period.  

“Preschool only works when it’s preceded by quality-rich experiences from whether that’s at home, with extended family and friends, and child care and followed by well-resourced schools that center child wellness, community, families, and developmentally appropriate learning,” Meek said.  

In 2019, University of North Carolina Research Professor Dr. Iheoma U. Iruka relied on Head Start data to contribute key recommendations for the academic report Vibrant and Healthy, Aligning Science Practice, and Policy to Advance Health Equity. One of those recommendations was that federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial policymakers should work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start, and the Office of Childcare to develop and implement a plan to improve the quality of education programs using Head Start’s health promoting standards and then expand on more than 10 years of expertise to create a more comprehensive service.  

“We saw Head Start as the one way to ensure health equity because of their performance standards,”  Iruka said. “As we continue to deal with a pandemic with a growing child care crisis, it is a crisis that a Black and Latin, the children in particular and children from low-income households are going to and still are going to experience the worst and carry the burden. If we are not, if we don’t act on it, create a more robust, comprehensive system. 

East Coast Migrant Head Start Project’s class prior to the pandemic. Photo Courtesy of East Coast Migrant Head Start.

UnidosUS Education Policy Project Director Amalia Chamorro reminded the audience that there are a growing number of dual language learners (DLLs) among America’s youngest children, and emphasized that universal pre-K should be intentional in embedding dual-language learning practices and policies. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 28% of Head Start families spoke a language other than English at home, and Spanish was the primary home language for 22% of participants.  

“There has been a history of discrimination over the last few decades in terms of extinguishing and diminishing one’s home language when the research actually shows that children can learn more than one language and can absorb more than one language from a very early age, and that extinguishing their home language actually is not something that we should be encouraging because it affects their sense of belonging and self-identity,” Chamorro said.  

In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts and Cultures, a synthesis report of research on the processes and functions of human learning. It was an update to the original version published in 2000. In the updated report, children’s sense of belonging is identified as a fundamental component of an effective learning environment, and the research points to the importance of children’s home language proficiency in learning English and fostering their school success. 

El Centro de la Raza educators say affordable, multilingual childcare teaches them to be culturally responsive problem solvers. Photo by Julienne Gage.

UnidosUS’s recently released brief Nurturing Your Multilingual Preschool-Age Child Amid COVID-19, offers recommendations to affirm and celebrate children’s language practices as great ways to foster learning and development of two or more languages and their social and emotional wellbeing so that they grow up happy, confident, and whole. 

Chamorro also noted that a diverse workforce will be needed to meet that challenge and reaffirmed the push for greater support and compensation of early childhood educators. UnidosUS’s report Latina Teachers and the BA Challenge: Impacts and Conditions of Increasing Degree Requirements in Early Childhood Education shows that those early childhood educators are predominately women of color, and one in five of them are Latina. 

Dr. Walter Gilliam, a professor at the Yale University Child Study Center, as well as the director of The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, noted that his late mentor Edward Zigler, a developmental psychologist and pioneer in early education long considered the “father of Head Start,” had always envisioned a time when Head Start could be open to everyone.  

“When you think about a time when we need a system of care, that doesn’t just take care of children’s educational needs but also realizes that children are embedded within families that are within communities, a system that also realizes that care and health and mental health are all intertwined, I can’t think of a time when that is more needed than right now,” said Gilliam. 

On Monday, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a bipartisan bill which provides $1.2 trillion for transportation, broadband, and utilities.  

“The United States is at the cusp of fulfilling the dream of preschool for all, which will support working families, and provide a critical lifeline for children and families in historically marginalized, under-resourced communities,” said Chamorro. “With this law signed, Congress must now focus on passing a human infrastructure package that includes universal pre-K. Let’s not waste this opportunity to do right by our children.”