Report says Wisconsin ranks ‘very poorly’ for Head Start program

Wisconsin is one of 18 states that rank “very poorly” for instructional support in the federal Head Start program for children in poverty, according to a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

pupils_at_school_300pxHead Start, the report says, varies dramatically from state to state in funding, classroom hours, teacher qualifications and compensation, observed quality, and enrollment.

“Such differences arise, in part, as local programs have been forced to triage limited funding,” the report states. “This report’s findings underscore the need for greater coordination between Head Start and state and local government agencies to build high-quality early learning programs with widespread reach and adequate funding.”

In Wisconsin, Head Start enrolled 14,847 children during the 2014-2015 program year – about 10 percent of the state’s low-income children under age 5, on par with the national average of 10 percent. Federal funding per child exceeded the national average for Early Head Start (EHS) serving infants and toddlers but lagged behind the national average for Head Start (HS) serving 3- and 4-year- olds, when adjusted for cost of living. Instructional support was below the research-based threshold for effective learning, while emotional support and classroom organization exceeded the threshold. Head Start program teachers earned substantially less than teachers in public schools. Specifically:

  • EHS funding per child in Wisconsin was $12,773, exceeding the national average of $12,575; HS funding per child was $7,663, below the national average of $8,038 when adjusted for cost of living.
  • 15 percent of children enrolled attended Head Start for at least 1,020 hours per year – far below the national average of 42 percent. New standards will require at least 1,020 hours per year of programming by August 2021 to provide children enough time to make strong development gains.
  • Percentage of HS teachers holding a BA or higher is slightly above the national average – 74 percent in Wisconsin, compared to 73 percent nationwide. Percent of EHS teachers with a BA was just below the national average, at 29 percent in Wisconsin, and 30 percent nationally.
  • HS teachers with a BA earned $35,354, and EHS teachers earned $33,845, compared to $54,535 for teachers in public schools.

Head Start is a federally funded, locally administered comprehensive child development program that provides early education and support services to children and families with household incomes up to 130 percent of poverty by federal standards (about $33,000 for a family of four). Head Start serves children ages 3 to 5, while Early Head Start serves infants and toddlers.

Many Head Start programs collaborate with child care and public preschool programs to serve eligible children, including children of migrant workers and tribal families.

The State(s) of Head Start report is also the first to report on Head Start classroom quality by state. Across the country, Head Start teachers demonstrated an ability to provide emotionally supportive environments, and the majority of states also scored well on classroom organization. However, programs in just two states, Kentucky and Vermont, could be determined to score above a research-based threshold for effective instructional support. Eighteen states – including Wisconsin – scored significantly below this threshold. The report also finds variation in teacher qualifications, compensation, and turnover that can create problems for providing effective programs.

The report shows that Head Start programs are not uniformly funded at levels adequate to ensure a high quality learning and development experience and attract and retain qualified teachers while providing all the required services. Large differences in funding between states remain even after accounting for differences in the cost of living between states.

NIEER estimates that federal funding falls $14 billion short of what would be needed to serve all eligible 3- and 4-year-olds in high- quality Head Start programs for 1,020 hours per year (at an average of $10,000 per child). Early Head Start is even further from the funding levels needed to fulfill its expressed mission. Although Head Start grantees are expected to raise 20 percent of their total budget from non-federal sources in the form of financial or in-kind donations, these added resources do not make up for the gaps in the federal funds needed to adequately pay teachers to deliver the expected quality and hours of services.

NIEER’s findings highlight the need for renewed attention to meeting the needs of young children in low-income families in every state.

For more information on the State(s) of Head Start and detailed state-by-state profiles on quality, duration, access, and funding, visit

Read NPR summary:

After 50 Years, Head Start Struggles With Uneven Quality

For more than 50 years, Head Start has provided free early childhood education and other services to low-income families and their children. But new national research, out today, shows great variation from state to state in how well the program works.