Head Start’s Improved Eligibility Process is a Positive Change, but Doesn’t Address the Root Problem—For Many American Families Quality Early Education is Out of Reach

It comes as welcome news that the Office of Head Start proposes more stringent rules for enrollment eligibility and data keeping in the program. (See the Federal Register at: https://nieer.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/2011-6326.pdf.)  Although the extent of the problem is unknown, in some locales parents have been able to enroll their children in Head Start despite the fact that they are not income eligible. This may deny access to children who do meet the guidelines and creates enmity among parents who are not willing to break the rules.  Yet, tougher enforcement of eligibility rules does not get to the root of the real problem.

Many American families with incomes too high to qualify for Head Start or state-funded pre-K simply can’t afford a good preschool education for their children.  Unless they live in Oklahoma or one a of a handful of other places that offer pre-K to everyone regardless of income or has a relatively high income cutoff for eligibility, families will continue to be frustrated by their inability to provide their children with a quality early education no matter how hard they work.  And no matter how tough the screening, parents will continue to feel pressure to misrepresent their finances and manipulate their circumstances at enrollment to gain access to a good early education.

NIEER encountered one such example last August when a young single mom from the Southwestern United States shared her story of frustration. Her son, whom we’ll call Cam, was looking forward to attending preschool. His mom had tentatively enrolled him in the local Head Start program and together they purchased a new back pack for him. But preschool wasn’t in the cards for Cam. By the time Head Start informed Cam’s mom that her income was too high, other pre-K programs in the area were already full. Cam, now 4, remains at home while mom works. She is frustrated not only at the lack of pre-K programs for Cam, but also because, in her view, the rewards of public pre-K go first to those who game the system.

Q: Why was Cam denied enrollment in the program?

A: Because they said I make too much money and I didn’t get enough points in their enrollment system. I make $37,000 a year and I got 50 points — 25 for being a single parent and 25 for having a child at home with no caregiver. The other possible points were for homelessness, foster care, learning disability, inability to speak English, and death of a parent.

Q: That seems straightforward enough. Why are you frustrated?

A: Because I am pretty sure other people lie about their income to get their kids in school. In fact I know that they do. Besides that why should income define what children deserve in education?

Q: What makes you think that?

A: I have spoken with other women in the community whose kids were being turned away because of income and they were told to lie about their income. And while we were registering Cam, my father overheard a young lady being told to lie about her income. I also know of a couple that owns their own business and got their children in.

Q: Did you point this out?

A: I did and I asked them if they expect me to quit my job to get Cam into school. I also confronted the school on the screening process of parents. They said they do not verify check stubs so anyone can make a few changes to get their kids in. I then proceeded to ask them, “Well if I come back next week with an altered check stub my son will get in?” I wanted to point out the flaws in the program criteria.

Q: Did anyone recommend other programs?

A: Yes. There is a program 20 miles away. I work a lot and that would never work out for us. There was another program that would cost $347 a month and I can’t afford it. The program was also started for school teachers so that their kids get in first and then the other children. So even if I got a second job to pay for schooling for my son, he is not guaranteed to be accepted.

Q: How is Cam doing?

A: He got really upset when we got the denial and he still gets excited when he sees a school bus drive by. My dad stays home and watches him every day while I work. We bought books on preschool learning at Sam’s Club and my dad is teaching him from them. He turned 4 in November and is really ready to go to school.


  1. Dirk Shumaker, Anchorage, Alaska on

    I am curious about who the parent talked with. If a Head Start employee was telling a parent to lie about their family’s income, that’s fraud and should be reported to the program administration. If the administrators don’t respond, the complaint should be taken to the regional office of the federal Office of Head Start.

    The same goes if the eligibility verification controls are clearly inadequate and lead to unfair practices. Head Start programs must make a reasonable effort to ensure they are enrolling children who need the program most. I hope this parent made it to the executive level and beyond if she was not satisfied with the response. Such cage rattling can be a hassle for a busy, working single parent but sometimes it is necessary.

    Re: “Why should income define what children deserve an education” I hope she is asking her elected state and federal representatives that question.

  2. lisaguernsey on

    Yes, the issue of enrollment eligibility and people ‘gaming the system’ is worth pointing out. But what strikes me as more important about this interview is the mother’s description at the end about what kind of learning experience her 4-year-old is having now that he is at home with his grandpa: “We bought books on preschool learning at Sam’s Club and my dad is teaching him from them.” As many of us in early childhood know, a high-quality preschool experience — if it had been available to Cam — would be offering so much more than “seat work” and going through workbooks. It would introduce him to new concepts in early science, social studies and mathematics. It would encourage him to explore the natural and physical world and ask questions about what he is seeing and feeling. It would introduce him to great children’s literature and help him develop the social and self-regulation skills, not to mention language skills, that are developed when children share stories with peers and teachers in group settings. It’s distressing to hear about children who are eager to go to school and eager to learn and who are being deprived of that opportunity.

  3. It is also important to note that at least in our program, we require PROOF of income, as in a paper with your income on it. This can be a paycheck with a weekly salary or year to date income so that an average can be described. Many times a mother and father are not married even though they live together. They may share expenses and so income is higher than for the legal guardian who is registering the child. Since the parent who is no the guardian has no legal commitment to the child other than emotional attachment, their income is not “counted” as income. Besides the fact that this process discourages marriage by families living in poverty, it is the only way that legal income can be verified.

    It is simple to confirm the income at the point of registration. This is where the system falls apart. Nobody wants to hear the word, “No”. that said, up to 10% of a Head Start program can be made up of children over income but if the program is full without those children over income children can not be enrolled.

    Seems like a clear argument for increased access to pre-K in that locality along with a braided funding approach if possible to expand services.

  4. This society is sick! on

    This system sucks. It just makes me want to quit my job and lie about my marital status to get my child equal chance to get into the program. Why is our society favors people who don’t work? Come on, tell me that most of the people who is qualified for this program are not Latino majority in California and tell me that the majority are poor not because they keep producing babies without thinking their financial. Responsible people like us get punished by paying higher tax without being able to get any benefits from money out of our pockets. If this is what Americans want, what the society wants, I’m not surprised there are more and more people who got lazy ass. In fact, I admire them. Me and my spouse decided at the time of our kid is ready for college, we will quit the job and move out of country and give up our green card so we can work oversea while our kid can get government grants without paying back. After all, you got to play a good game as others did.

    • I am going through the same problem and I’m a teacher but my child can’t go to school. It should be an equal opportunity for all. I agree with you 100%

      • yes agreed ignorant comment and many people who have their kids enrolled do work they just somehow are under the poverty guidelines (which are so flawed they need to increase the poverty line)

  5. School system sucks!
    If you think it’s latino majority in California… You’re completely wrong and ignorant! A visit to Beverly Hills or Santa Monica preschools will show you different, when you see all the white kids at a headstart program. How do you explain that? This year about 80 headstart program schools closed in the Los Angeles area. Do you think at least 1 of these programs closed in Beverly Hills or Santa Monica? nope. In reality I just think our kids are getting less and less benefits each year at school programs, and it gets worst if you live in a poor community.

    I myself couldn’t enrolled my daughter in a headstart program nor pre-K due to my income. I always question how others do it? It’s simple they lie to the system about their income, because how do you explain those rich areas full of kids in their headstart programs?

  6. I am having the same problem. It seems that if you are honest, it doesn’t pay. I took my daughter back and forth to all of the appointments for the dr. To get a physical, tb test, blood tests, dental exam, brought a copy of the taxes and even a letter from the doctor saying she had a speech delay and that she would benefit from the preschool program. They called me and left a message saying that they would be approving her and they just needed address verification(which I gave to them at the beginning but the girl “forgot” to take the utility bill out of the envelope). So then I took it again that same day.(which was a Friday) and on Monday the girl told me it was not approved.

  7. What I would like is for the state of California and the federal government to step up and let parents whose income is above their guidelines know what the alternative is. It is very disheartening to be told time after time that you make too much money to enroll your child in preschool. Yet every time you turn on the TV people are stressing how important early education is. Just because I make $45k a year in a 3 person household does not make me middle income nor rich. I pay rent, a car note, taxes, utilities and child care fees with no government assistance what-so-ever. I just want to enroll my 4 year old in pre-k so that he is Kindergarten ready when the time comes. Local, state and federal government needs to step up and give alternatives for those who do not meet their income guidelines and are above the 10% threshold for those over-income qualified parents.

  8. I agree with the majority of these comments. I’m a mother of three (9, 3, 2). My husband and I make just enough to cover the bills with two kids in daycare, car notes, insurance, rent etc. We get no government assistance and our 3 year old really wants to go to school. These types of programs make people like me want to quit my job and enjoy all the free benefits (medicaid, food assistance, cash assistance, childcare). Although I feel that it is unfair for those who lie to receive benefits, I do believe in the program. I just feel that there should be help for those in situations like mine. I don’t mind paying even a minimal fee based on income but I shouldn’t be completely denied for making an honest living and educate my child.

    • I live in Iowa and we have prek in the schools and head start, do they not offer prek in schools there at all? I understand the comments, but I’m a single mom going to school full time and I have three part time jobs, my son goes to head start, and I have some gov assistance not everyone who is getting assistance is abusing it. I am grateful my son gets to go to school and I hope that once I am finished with schoolthat I will get a well paying job without the need for assistance. I used to feel ashamed, but I.think that assistnce is there exactly for those in similar situations. It’s sad that others only see those abusing it.

  9. I’m dealing with my local program and will likely be kicked off the vouchers because my son’s father and I live together. It is really ignorant to say that you don’t want to work so you can receive all the government benefits. We get medicaid and my boyfriend and I both work. You shouldn’t be upset at people who are on assistance you should be upset about how the system is set up. The poverty level is what you should be the most upset about. We live above the poverty level and so we don’t get food stamps or any housing assistance. Actually the only assistance we qualify for is medicaid and WIC (WIC=about $50 a month at the most). We feel poor our fridge looks poor my car is over 10 yrs old but the government thinks we’re rich. Preschool is $200 a week at a decent place around here. I don’t even make that in a week. When kindergartners go to school they’re expected to already know basically everything that we learned in kindergarten. Since they have made kindergarten so much harder it’s a no brainer that preschool should be included in the school system! It just makes sense! Stop making kindergartners cry because they now have homework for God’s sake and they never even stepped foot in a classroom before. It’s unfair to our kids to not allow all of them to go to preschool!