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By J.B. Wogan September 27, 2012

Early learning programs grew, but not to promised size

In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama outlined a broad education agenda, from improving high school graduation rates to investing more in public charter schools. Part of Obama's plan was to reach children while they're young through two federal programs: Head Start and Early Head Start.

His exact promise: to quadruple the number of children eligible for Early Head Start, increase Head Start funding and improve quality for both.

For the purposes of this fact-check, we won't go into all the differences between the two programs. As you might guess, Early Head Start focuses on the youngest children, from toddler to 3 years old, pregnant women and their families; Head Start targets pre-school-age children and their families. Both aim to help children from low-income families.

We'll take this in three parts.

1. Enrollment for Early Head Start: The Obama administration nearly doubled the number of children enrolled in Early Head Start through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the economic stimulus. That was a temporary measure, explaining the sudden jump between 2009 and 2010. Then Congress increased funding in the next two budgets to keep enrollment at that level. That's a major increase, but only half as much as Obama swore to accomplish as a candidate. (Note: the 2012 figure is an estimate from the Administration for Children and Families at U.S. Health and Human Services.)

You can see the change in funding over time in the table below.

Fiscal Year 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 (estimate)
EHS Enrollment 61,760 66,390 114,750 114,470 114,470

2. Increased funding for Head Start: This did happen, in part because the Education Department launched a competitive grant program for states called Race to the Top: Early Learning Challenge Grants. We found $500 million awarded in 2011 and another $133 million scheduled to be awarded in December of this year. Although the money is not direct funding for Head Start programs, it's meant to improve early learning programs from the administrative end. The proposed changes vary between applicants, but past grant recipients outlined plans for training early learning educators and creating new systems to track and test student performance.

The National Institute of Education Research, a think tank focused on early education, said the Obama administration expanded Head Start funding from $6.2 billion in President George W. Bush's last year in office to $6.6 billion in 2012.

3. Improved quality for both programs: This also happened. We checked with the National Head Start Association, a research and advocacy group that promotes early learning programs. They referred us to a list of federal reforms in the last few years.

For instance, the federal Office of Head Start now sends unannounced monitors to make sure local Head Start and Early Head Start agencies are complying with federal standards; this started after a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office said agencies were inconsistent in their enrollment practices.

The other major change relates to measurement -- the federal government now evaluates the quality of individual agencies. In practice this means an inspector will go into a classroom and watch a teacher in action. It may sound squishy, but the inspectors actually use an established and tested grading criteria called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System. If agencies receive low marks for quality, they run the risk of losing federal funding. This is part of a larger effort by the federal government to make grant funding for Head Start and Early Head Start part of a periodic competitive bidding process, with quality being one of several factors for selection.

The evaluation system resulted from a 2007 law signed into law by Bush, so Obama only gets credit in refining and implementing a policy his predecessor made possible. The same goes for some other quality improvements in the last four years: 

  • A higher percentage of teachers must have either a bachelor's degree or associate's degree.
  • Any curriculum used for an individual Head Start or Early Head Start program must be based on scientifically valid research.
  • Local programs must sign a formal agreement with its school district to ensure a smooth transition for students entering pre-kindergarten.

To summarize: Obama set up new grant programs and supported Bush-era reforms. Nonetheless, he fell short on his enrollment goal for Early Head Start. We rate this a Compromise.

CORRECTION: We have corrected this story to note that the Early Learning Challenge grants go to states. We mistakenly said they went to school districts as well. We also clarified that these federal grants pay for administrative changes to early learning programs.

Our Sources

Interview with Sally Aman, spokeswoman for the National Head Start Association, Sept. 26, 2012

Email interview with Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director in the Office of Public Affairs at the Administration for Children and Families, Sept. 5, 2012

Interview with Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, Sept. 24, 2012

Early Head Start National Resource Center, Early Head Start Program Facts Fiscal Year 2011

National Head Start Association, Head Start funding, enrollment and reforms since 2008, (accessed on Sept. 26, 2012)
National Head Start Association, NHSA applauds $2.1 billion economic recovery package for Head Start/Early Head Start, Jan. 15, 2009

Office of Head Start, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Part 1307 of the Head Start Program Performance Standards, Nov. 9, 2011

Government Accountability Office, Head Start grantees expand services, but more consistent communication could improve accountability and decisions about spending, December 2010

U.S. Education Department, Investment in early learning, Feb. 14, 2011, We can't wait: President Obama takes action to improve quality and promote accountability in Head Start programs, Nov. 8, 2011

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan April 6, 2009

Head Start and Early Head Start get stimulus money

Head Start and Early Head Start are programs for preschool children from low-income families, aimed at giving the children an educational boost before they start school. President Barack Obama promised to expand these programs when campaigning for president.

The recent economic stimulus bill, also known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, includes more than $2 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start. (Head Start is for 4- and 5-year-olds, while Early Head Start is for 3 and under and pregnant women.)

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said $1 billion will go to Head Start, allowing it to serve an additional 16,600 children, while $1.1 billion will go to Early Head Start, allowing it to serve an additional 55,000 children and pregnant women. That money will nearly double the number of Early Head Start participants.

Obama hasn't quite achieved the quadrupling of Early Head Start that he promised, and we are not judging yet whether he has improved the quality of the programs. But the stimulus money is a significant investment in these programs, and we rate his promise In the Works.

Our Sources

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