"Impact of the Introduction of Pre-Kindergarten Programs on Head Start Enrollment of Children with Disabilities"
Authors: Qing Zhang and Jade Jenkins
The past two decades marked the expansion of state-sponsored pre-kindergarten (pre-k) programs as an effort to promote early childhood education and reach more four-year-old children. Head Start, the federal government’s preschool program for disadvantaged, very low-income children, requires that each program reserves at least 10% of the spaces for children with disabilities. Head Start serves a higher percentage of children with disabilities than found in the overall population (Administration for Children and Families, 2016), and children in Head Start are more likely to have multiple disabilities and have their disabilities verified by doctors than those in other types of child care settings (Lee & Rispoli, 2016). While the addition of pre-k slots may draw some parents away from Head Start, it may make more Head Start spaces available to children with disabilities. Because Head Start provides comprehensive services including education, health, and linkages to community resources, it may be more attractive to families with children with special needs.
The majority of existing studies on young children with disabilities focus on the positive effects of Head Start and pre-k program participation on both typically and non-typically developing children’s early academic skills (e.g., Barton et al., 2012; Phillips & Meloy, 2012). However, few studies have explored how the interaction between Head Start and pre-k, the two largest publicly funded early childhood programs, may influence the provision of preschool services for children with special needs. Bassok (2012) examined the impact of state pre-k on the enrollment of Head Start programs and found an overall collaborative relationship, suggesting that together the two programs are able to reach a broader group of eligible children. However, no study directly addresses how Head Start programs are impacted by pre-k program expansion with respect to serving children with disabilities.
Our study aims to fill this gap by examining the causal impact of the introduction of state pre-k programs on the Head Start enrollment of children with disabilities. We use a comprehensive administrative dataset on all Head Start programs nationwide, the Program Information Report, from 1988 to 2018. We exploit variation in the timing of states’ pre-k program implementation using a differences-in-differences design, including state-by-year fixed effects to capture unobserved state early education policy factors. Specifically, we ask three research questions: