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May 18, 1994: President Bill Clinton signed legislation increasing Head Start funds and broadening the program to include children below age three. The law also implemented new quality and accountability standards.

Head Start: A chance to succeed.

Clinton administration alumni Joan Lombardi on why we must continue the bipartisan commitment to help children and families.

By Joan Lombardi, Ph.D.

This is what it looks like when the country comes together. Let’s use this anniversary to renew the promise of Head Start and recommit to a spirit of possibilities.

Twenty five years ago, on May 18, 1994, families and staff gathered in the East Room of the White House with President Clinton as he signed bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the Head Start program. That day ushered in an important new era for Head Start, which began as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, renewing a commitment to quality early education and launching a bold new initiative to reach infants, toddlers and their families.

Just eleven months earlier, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala had convened a high-level advisory committee to conduct a top to bottom review of the program and to make a set of recommendations for the future. The Committee was created in the bipartisan spirt that has long characterized the Head Start program. Having staffed the Advisory Committee, I remember the hundreds of people who provided critical input and testimony.

One parent in particular stood out as she said: “I learned to live again, not just survive; Head Start gave me and my children a chance to succeed.”

Decades of research underscore the importance of quality in the delivery of effective early childhood services. After many years of advocacy to strengthen Head Start, a quality set aside was included in the 1990 Head Start legislation signed by President George H. W. Bush. The 1994 legislation built on, strengthened and expanded those provisions as recommended by the Advisory Committee.

The most critical aspects of the new law led to important advances in the program which included: revision of the Head Start Program Performance Standards for the first time in 20 years; design of Performance Measures to track the outcome of Head Start services; initiation of a new system of on-site reviews facilitating replacement of grantees with serious deficiencies; implementation of improvements in staff salaries and benefits for local programs; and the development of a program of services for infants, toddler and their families — Early Head Start.

The drumbeat to expand services to younger children had been growing over the years. Perhaps most timely was Starting Points, The Report of the Carnegie Task Force on Meeting the Needs of Young Children, issued by the Carnegie Corporation of New York earlier in 1994. This widely acclaimed report underscored the importance of the earliest years of life and the impact of an adverse environment on brain development. The Carnegie task force urged Congress and the new administration to expand Head Start to serve families with younger children.

The launching of the Early Head Start Program to serve pregnant women and children under three was therefore seen as a landmark achievement which was long overdue. Once again, the Clinton administration solicited expertise from families, programs and specialists from multiple disciplines. At its very core was the concept of partnerships, particularly partnerships with child care which was also expanding at the time. The program was formally announced in the fall of 1994, and the first grants awarded to 68 programs in fall of 1995. Since that time Congress has continued to expand the program, including a strong focus on Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships which has contributed to a much greater reach for Early Head Start and significant improvements in the quality of child care.

In addition, the 1994 bi-partisan Head Start reauthorization also helped set the stage to continue significant increases in Head Start funding over the rest of the decade.

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“Head Start helps these little children … to know they’re special and to begin to see the world in a wonderful but still organized way. And that is a very, very significant thing.” — President Bill Clinton, May 18, 1994

Head Start has always represented the best things that can happen in America: access to comprehensive services including education, nutrition, health, and family support, and a sense of hope for the future. While the program reaches nearly one million children, this is just a fraction of eligible children. The Head Start door still remains closed for far too many children in poverty. We can do better than this as a country.

Moving forward, Head Start must remain bipartisan and continue to serve as a national laboratory of innovation. We need an investment that can serve all eligible children and families, particularly those children under three. We need to continue to expand partnerships from child care to child welfare to early intervention. And to make all this happen we have to invest in the workforce; the people who dedicate their time, energy and ideas to the program.

Many of the children from the Head Start class of 1994 may be turning 30 soon, some with families of their own. Head Start opened a door of opportunity for them; it gave them that chance to succeed. This is what it looks like when the country comes together. Let’s use this anniversary to renew the promise of Head Start and recommit to a spirit of possibilities.

Joan Lombardi, Ph.D. served in the Administration for Children and Families at USDHHS (1993–98) during the Clinton Administration as the staff director of the Advisory Committee on Head Start Quality and Expansion and later as the first Commissioner of the Child Care Bureau, and as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and External Affairs. She served as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development (2009–11) during the Obama Administration and is the co-editor of Beacon of Hope: The Promise of Early Head Start for America’s Youngest Children.

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