For more than 50 years, Head Start has provided free early childhood education and other services to low-income families. But new national research, out Wednesday, shows great variation from state to state in how well the program works.
The study comes from the National Institute for Early Education Research, and it examined Head Start programs in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.
It focused on quality and ranked states accordingly. Kentucky and Vermont came out the best, while 18 states ranked very poorly: Arizona, Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
"This is the first time anyone has looked at funding, services and quality state by state, says Steven Barnett, a professor at Rutgers University who directed the study. The research was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which also supports education coverage at NPR).
Among the key findings, Barnett says, is that "programs that offered more hours had lower quality." Poor-quality programs, he explains, are simply trying to do too much with too little.
Head Start is an $8.2 billion federally funded program that serves more than 900,000 children.
The study also looked at teacher pay. In more than 20 states, the study found, Head Start teachers earn less than $30,000 a year on average. That level of pay, Barnett says, makes it difficult to attract and keep good teachers, especially those with college degrees.
The research also examined the percent of eligible children served, finding that it varies widely state-by-state. Some states, like North Dakota, the study says, are serving nearly all of their eligible preschool children, while others, like Nevada, don't reach even 20 percent.
Sally Aman, a spokeswoman for the National Head Start Association, which represents local organizations, says the group does not dispute the overall findings. But she raised concerns about the ranking and rating of states. "I think it's dangerous," she said. "To compare is almost unfair."
Aman says Head Start is a national program, so of course there are going to be differences among states. But ranking them, she argued, does nothing to address a key finding of the report: that Head Start programs in general don't get the funding they need to do the job they're asked to do.
Steve Barnett agrees that the program needs more funding, but says the point of the study was to show that some programs are hurting more than others.
"Local providers have to make decisions about: Do we serve more children or fewer children? Do we offer more hours or fewer hours? Do we pay teachers more or less?" he says. "And we can't do all those things."