Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What is the value of early childhood education for low income children?

Head Start is a long standing comprehensive early childhood program targeting services to preschool children three to five years old who are low income. Head Start provides a full menu of services including school readiness programming; medical, dental, and immunization services; nutrition assistance; referrals and parent engagement strategies. Established in 1965 Minnesota is one of only 17 states that supplement federal funds with state funds and places fourth in the nation in total funding for the program. Minnesota compliments the federal allocation of $84, 817, 000 in 2009 with an additional $20,100,000, an increase of $2,145,000 since 2002.

Head Start is funded by a complex funding formula in federal law. It emphasizes assurance that programs will receive at least the same amount of funding they did the year previous including an annual cost of living increase, prioritizes funding for programs serving Indian and migrant children and families, and then expanding access by emphasizing those states serving less than 60% of eligible children. 50% of any remaining funds are directed to expanding Early Head Start, a more recent program serving children birth to three years. Minnesota distributes its funding on the same base as the federal aid. The 35 state providers of Head Start programs are required to submit annual plans to the Minnesota Department of Education to be eligible for the funding. Plans must detail the number of low income families and children served by the program, a description of the services, and a plan for coordinating with local full day child care providers.

The value of early childhood education has increasingly come to be an area of study and controversy. In Minnesota the Legislative Auditor reviewed three early childhood programs in 2001. Art Rolnick, Senior Vice President and Director of Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has studied early childhood programming for at risk children as an unorthodox economic development strategy and found that rigorous programming can return up to $17 for every dollar invested for at risk children in future savings. While Head Start’s supporters argue that it is a solid investment in low income children and families detractors argue that the effects of Head Start fade within three years and as such is a poor investment of public funds.

The recent American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided an additional $2.3 billion for Head Start. The funds are structured to respond to criticism of the program by strengthening staff pay and training, assisting staff in increasing their post-secondary education, reduce child-to-teacher ratios, and expand Early Head Start.

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