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Is Head Start Working for Low-Income Latino Kids? Depends on the State

Image: Government Assistance Programs Aid Underprivileged Communities In New York State
File photo of cubbies lining up a classroom wall at the federally-funded Head Start school on September 20, 2012 in Woodbourne, New York. John Moore / Getty Images

Quality preschool can greatly benefit low-income children and families, yet the three states with the greatest numbers of Latino residents fell below national averages on enrollment and other measures in a state-by-state report of Head Start programs.

On some measures, though, the states beat the national average.

The evaluation by the National Institute for Early Education Research, NIEER, and Rutgers Graduate School of Education found great inconsistency among states in Head Start and Early Head Start programs, products of Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.

Head Start is a government funded preschool program that provides education, nutrition and other services for low income children. Studies have shown there are positive effects to quality early education.

Head Start serves children ages 3 to 5 years (the two years before kindergarten) and Early Head Start serves infants and toddlers until age 3 as well as pregnant mothers. Kids in families living below the federal poverty level, in foster care or in families on public assistance or who are homeless qualify for the program.

About 38 percent of the families with children enrolled in Head Start in 2014 identified as Latino.

RELATED: Latino Educators Stress Making Early Childhood Education a Priority

Some states reached national quality standards and served higher percentages of low-income children or those living in poverty. But others reached only a small portion of children who qualify for the federally funded preschool education.

Texas, Florida and California fall below the national average on the share of their 3-year-olds in poverty who were enrolled in Head Start in the 2014-15 school year. In Texas, 25.48 percent were enrolled, while in Florida it was 23.17 percent. California's enrollment of 31.9 percent was closest to the national average, 32.9 percent.

The report's authors largely blamed the wide variation on inadequate funding that has forced states to make decisions on which age groups of children to serve, quality levels, teacher salaries and whether to provide full-day programs.

The report's authors largely blamed the wide variation on inadequate funding that has forced states to make decisions on which age groups of children to serve, quality levels, teacher salaries and whether to provide full-day programs.

The three states ranked below the national average on enrollment of other age groups of children in poverty, although California was above the average on low income children in poverty under 3. In California 14.4 million residents are Latino, in Texas, 9.8 million and in Florida, 4.4 million.

Florida and Texas did better than the national average in the percent of Early Head Start and Head Start children in school day, five-day per week programs, while California was below the national average.

In Florida, 35 percent of the state's Early and Head Start families and children are Latino, 77 percent in Texas and 74 percent in California.

Despite bipartisan support for the program, Head Start suffers from inadequate public investment, the researchers said in their report "State(s) of Head Start".

"As a result, some vulnerable children benefit less than others from Head Start participation. Yet, we can think of no reason children living in poverty in one state are less deserving of a high-quality education in Head Start than those in another," the report states.

The authors said the variation can't be explained by only the needs of the those served. Although the administration has raised national policy standards for the program, meeting them will be costly, the researchers stated.

The report recommends an independent bipartisan commission to study the issues raised in the report and come up with a plan to address them.

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