SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s Head Start programs are of higher-than average quality despite lower-than-average funding, according to a recent report examining the federally funded preschool program.
The state-by-state report from the National Institute for Early Education Research found “fundamental and difficult to understand” disparities across states and called on lawmakers to provide more funding to enroll more children in the program.
According to the report, Utah ranked among the bottom 10 when it came to funding but in the top 10 in instructional quality, emotional support and classroom management.
Head Start and Early Head Start provided services for more than 6,500 low-income students in Utah in the 2014-15 school year — just 6 percent of those eligible, according to the study.
Erin Trenbeath-Murray, CEO of Utah Community Action and the Salt Lake Head Start program, said she has struggled with the lower-than-average funding.
When adjusted for cost of living, Utah children are funded slightly below the national average, according to the report, at $7,398 per child compared to $8,038 per child nationally.
That makes it hard for her to give children the one-on-one attention that they require, Trenbeath-Murray said. She struggles to keep the classroom ratio to eight students per teacher or teacher's aide, compared to the goal of 5-to-1.
“There’s so much to do, and when you’ve got that big of a gap, it makes it tough,” Trenbeath-Murray said.
The report also sheds light on the wage gap between teachers in Head Start and in public schools.
Teachers in Utah public elementary schools earn an average of $45,848 per year, according to the report — nearly $21,000 more than the average Head Start teacher in Utah with the same credentials.
Tenbeath-Murray said that has resulted in teacher retention challenges, with many teachers leaving to join public schools.
“We’re like a farm camp for the school district,” she said. “Even though I offer benefits as well, they do full health insurance, retirement. I just can’t compete with it."
Head Start came under scrutiny after a nationwide evaluation in 2010 delivered disappointing results, finding that initial academic improvements in 3- and 4-year-olds largely dissipated by first to third grades.
The federal Head Start program is more than 50 years old, serves 900,000 children per year and cost $8.6 billion last year.
Utah received $13.5 million for Early Head Start and $39.4 million for Head Start from the federal government in 2015. The state does not provide any funding.
Trenbeath-Murray said it's fair to question the efficacy of Head Start but noted that it’s not just about academic gains.
Other researchers have found that early education often has long-term improvements in life outcomes. Even as educational gains fade, other measures like arrest rates and high school graduation rates often improve.
Studies from UCLA, Harvard and the University of Chicago have found that Head Start graduates are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to attend college, less likely to be jobless, more likely to be in good health and more likely to stay out of prisons and jails.
Local results also show that Salt Lake Head Start graduates continue to show improvement in test scores in grade school and improve at a faster rate than other students in high quality pre-K programs, Trenbeath-Murray said.
Head Start is under the Department of Health and Human Services. Funding priorities under President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee to head the department, Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia, are uncertain.
The program is undergoing its first major revamp in decades under the Obama administration, including raising curriculum requirements, increasing the amount of time spent in the program, expanding mental health services and boosting parental involvement.
Locally, early childhood education has received renewed attention in recent years at the Utah Legislature, Trenbeath-Murray said.
The Salt Lake program was recently awarded a large grant to increase services from 3.5 to 6 hours a day based on research that shows that children who spend more time in the program will maintain their gains for longer, Trenbeath-Murray said.
The funding will enable her to hire an extra aide for one-third of her classrooms, she said.
“The results we’re getting locally are outstanding,” she said. “I just think nationally, we also need to keep our eye on the ball.”