Florida’s Head Start program lagged behind the national average on several key measures, including the number of children enrolled, teacher qualifications and quality of instruction, according to a new study.
The federally-funded program, established in 1965, is designed to help low-income children prepare for kindergarten. It was conceived as a powerful weapon to help break the cycle of poverty by offering nutritional, health and counseling services to kids and families.
Florida's weak numbers come despite the fact that it receives slightly above the national average in funding and children enrolled in the program get more instructional time than in many other states.
“Florida is actually doing a good job of providing kids with five days a week for six hours per day,” Steven Barnett, executive director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, which conducted the study, said in an interview.
NIEER’s 479-page report, “State(s) of Head Start,” delved into data from the year 2014-2015 for all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and six U.S. territories. While the program was established more than 50 years ago, the report is the first of its kind.
Researchers found that Head Start varied dramatically from state to state on almost every measure, and called for a near tripling of the program's current budget, to more than $20 billion.
The study comes as Florida and other states seek to boost students’ educational achievement. In recent years, the Sunshine State has zeroed-in on literacy and kindergarten readiness.
According to NIEER’s report, the state has a ways to go if it wants to reach as many of its eligible kids as possible. Only about 7 percent of the state’s low-income children under five were enrolled in the program during 2014-15. The national average was about 10 percent.
“It’s been the case historically that the amount of funding provided is far less than what it would take to serve every child and family who is income eligible,” said Philip Tavill, CEO of Children First which is the only Head Start provider in Sarasota.
NIEER's report concluded that the program was underfunded virtually everywhere although Florida did receive slightly more funding than the national average. But when you break it down, Tavill said, it’s not enough to cover the wide range of services the program provides.
Although there have been some small funding increases, Tavill noted, they haven’t kept up with the need.
Funding, Barnett said, also forces tradeoffs, particularly when it comes to classroom and teacher quality.
Pay gap a problem
The researchers found that while Head Start classrooms vary drastically in quality, in general, they typically provide better opportunities for social and emotional development than for language and cognitive development.
Florida’s score on an instructional support measure was 2.7 on a seven-point scale. Researchers looked at how teachers implemented classroom lessons to promote children’s thinking and language skills.
The average score was 2.9, with most states scoring beneath 3. Kentucky and Vermont outperformed the rest, with a 3.3 and 3.7 respectively.
“While the social and emotional part is important for every kid, the academic, language and literacy side of this is especially important for English language learners,” Barnett said, noting that particularly in Florida and in much of the south and southwest where the scores unanimously lagged, the population of young English-language learners had surged in recent years.
Florida is also near the bottom of the list when it comes to percent of teachers with at least a bachelor’s. For Head Start teachers, the number was 71 percent, compared to 73 nationally.
Meanwhile, only 12.17 percent of the state's Early Head Start teachers, who work with kids ages six weeks up to three years old, had at least a bachelor of arts degree, according to the study. The national average is about 30 percent for Early Head Start teachers.
New Mexico was the only state to fare worse than Florida on this measure, with 11.6 percent; Washington, D.C., topped the list at 64.29 percent.
But even when the program’s teachers have college degrees, they still earn significantly less than public elementary school teachers with similar credentials, the report found.
Florida Early Head Start teachers with a college degree earn an average salary of $29,003. The average elementary school teacher in the state takes home $48,992 – a difference of $19,989.
The pay gap, Barnett noted, contributes to sagging quality and teacher turnover.
“When you have a teacher pay gap like Florida and the vast majority of other states have it makes it very difficult to attract quality teachers and keep those teachers,” Barnett said.