HHS Releases Proposed Rule on Head Start Staff Compensation, Benefits and More

November 30, 2023

On November 20, 2023, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a proposed rulemaking on various aspects of Head Start. The headline of the rule is a significant change to staff compensation and benefits in an effort to improve recruitment and retention.

Additional changes were proposed around enrollment, increasing mental health services, changes to lead testing and abatement requirements and other issues. The comment period for the rule closes on January 19, 2024. Those interested in submitting comments, may do so here.

Here's what is in the rule: 

Enrollment Changes - The proposed rule allows a program to adjust a family's income to account for excessive housing costs, when determining eligibility:

  • programs should determine if a family spends more than 30 percent of their total gross income on housing expenses,
  • if applicable, programs may reduce the total gross income by the amount spent in housing expenses above the 30 percent threshold to calculate the adjusted gross income for determining income eligibility.

Additionally, the rule modifies the enrollment requirement for migrant and seasonal head start to “one family member is primarily engaged in agricultural employment” rather than “family's income comes primarily from agricultural work”. Weather patterns have made it increasingly less likely that an entire family’s income comes from agricultural work. 

Staff Compensation, Benefits and Wellness - The rules included numerous changes for staff in order to improve recruitment and retention and minimize burnout among staff.   

CompensationRequires that Head Start education staff - who work directly with children as part of their daily job responsibilities - be paid comparable to a preschool teacher in a public school settings (based on salaries of the local or neighboring school district - whichever is higher). Must be implemented by August 1, 2031. Goal is for these educators to eventually be on par with third grade teacher salaries. The rule provides an alternative method for determining salaries for programs in areas with few or no neighboring public schools.

It is acknowledged that these changes, without additional investment from Congress, will lead to lower capacity for enrollment. It is the purpose of the 7-year implementation plan to give programs enough time to make these changes without impacting the students who are currently enrolled.

Programs must also establish a pay structure that applies to all staff in the program, promoting competitive compensation for all. The rule provides guidance on how to develop these structures, taking into account the various roles within programs and their experience, credentials, and responsibilities. For contracted staff, recommended that language in the contract must provide for wages comparable to what the recipient organization would provide if they were the employer. Further, proposed to require that programs strongly encourage contractors to use the funding to increase salaries for their staff.

Staff Benefits - Requires programs to provide or facilitate access to health insurance for all staff; paid sick leave, and paid family leave for full-time staff; provide short-term behavioral health services for full-time staff for free or at minimal cost to them; and facilitate access to Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) and child care subsidies for eligible staff. “Full-time” is defined as those working 30 or more hours per week during the program year. Additionally, it requires that programs allow for the accrual of paid vacation time or personal leave for staff who work longer than the typical school year.

Staff Wellness - Requires programs to provide regular breaks for staff (minimum of one 15 minute break per shift) as well as brief unscheduled `wellness breaks' for staff who work directly in classrooms with children to support stress management, improve well-being, reduce turnover, and improve staff retention and the quality of services. Also requires that classroom staff to have access to appropriate adult-sized furniture in classrooms to support ergonomic health.

  • During break times for classroom staff, one teaching staff member may be replaced by one staff member who does not meet the teaching qualifications required for the age, as long as this staff member has the necessary training and experience to ensure safety of children and minimal disruption to the quality of services.

Also requires programs to implement a management system that provides regular and ongoing staff supervision to support individual professional development and continuous program quality improvement. And encourages a teacher-child ratio of no more than three children to every teacher for classrooms where the majority of children are infants under 12 months.

Mental Health Services for Students and Families - The rules aims “strengthen, clarify and enhance existing Head Start mental health requirements, including intentionally integrating more staff attuned to the mental health needs of children and families by requiring a multidisciplinary team responsible for mental health within the program.”

  • Retains the prohibition on expulsions and severe limitations on use of suspension, clarifying that suspension is a measure of last resort to allow the program time to put needed supports and accommodations in place. Clarifies definitions of both terms.
  • Renames many sections to include mental health, underscoring its importance