Our Insights

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.


The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, conducts and disseminates independent research and analysis to inform early childhood education policy.