Strengthening Head Start: What the Evidence Shows. Fragmentation causes problems


Despite the agreement among many major stakeholders about the value of a coordinated system, the reality is much different in most states. While many states have demonstrated significant interest in, and commitment to, building strong early childhood systems in recent years, no state has a comprehensive system of early care and education that makes high quality services available to all families of young children who want help. Education Week(25) notes that the overlapping and often confusing mix of funding sources forces programs to respond to multiple and sometimes conflicting requirements.

In one study, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO)(26) found sixty-nine federal programs, administered by nine different federal agencies and departments, provided or supported education and care for children under age 5 in 1999. GAO noted that when multiple agencies manage multiple early childhood education and care programs, mission fragmentation and program overlap can occur. This in turn creates the potential for duplication and service gaps. Although GAO pointed out that duplication can sometimes be necessary, fragmentation and overlap can also create an environment in which programs do not serve participants as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In order to fully understand the problems that can result from a lack of coordination, it can help to illustrate the perspective of a parent, a provider, and a state administrator:

  • From a Parents Perspective:  A poorly coordinated system makes it difficult and confusing for parents to find good quality care for their children. Parents must try to determine which programs best suit their needs, and go through the application and eligibility determination process at each program separately. Some programs, including Head Start, may only be offered in the parents neighborhood for part-day or part-year, but the parent may require full-day or full-year services for their children to cover the hours of the work day. If the local Head Start program does not collaborate with local child care programs, parents are forced to patch together various arrangements.
  • From a Providers Perspective:  The lack of coordination presents a problem for child care and early education providers by forcing them to juggle different eligibility requirements for children and families, different methods of receiving subsidies or other state or federal funds, and different requirements and standards for the programs they deliver. The various early childhood programs may require different credentials from teachers and providers, and offer a range of salaries and benefits, making it difficult for providers in a single community to view themselves as part of a single system. In fact, differences in salaries and benefits may have the unintended effect of drawing the most qualified providers to some programs rather than others, for example, toward teaching in pre-kindergarten programs rather than Head Start or infant and toddler care. Lack of coordination also impacts health and social service providers, who must struggle to serve patients and clients who do not have a single entry point into the system, and have a variety of needs that must be met.
  • From the States/Administrators Perspective:  States must juggle funding, enrollment, eligibility, and other concerns for multiple different programs administered by different federal agencies. States are held responsible by the public for the care and education of young children, but lack of power and control to create a seamless system and provide access to all eligible families. Lack of coordination significantly complicates state efforts to engage in strategic and fiscal planning. Key stakeholders may have competing priorities and objectives and have difficulty agreeing on how best to meet the needs of the community. Instead of collaboration, there may be competition at the state level for scarce resources. Finally, states are aware that they will be held responsible for student performance in elementary school through the No Child Left Behind Act, and want to make sure that all the children in the state enter kindergarten ready to learn. However, a fragmented system of early care and education makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a state to provide the needed services to all the low-income children who will begin kindergarten in the public schools.

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