Presidential History of Head Start

Head Start has been transforming the lives of Americans through 11 presidential administrations. As a federal program, Head Start’s longevity demonstrates continued bipartisan support from the highest federal office. In honor of President’s Day, we reflect on our history and our country's enduring presidential commitment to Head Start children and families.

President Lyndon B. Johnson created Head Start as part of the War on Poverty in 1965.

“I believe that this is one of the most constructive, and one of the most sensible, and also one of the most exciting programs that this nation has ever undertaken,” he said in the Rose Garden ceremony. Head Start grew exponentially in its early years. In 1968, Lady Bird Johnson went to see the success for herself with a classroom visit.

Presidents through the 80s

Under the Nixon Administration, Head Start moved to the newly created Office of Child Development in 1969. In 1972, it was mandated that at least 10 percent of Head Start slots serve children with disabilities. This requirement still exists today. Improvements continued under the Ford Administration. Head Start celebrated its 10th anniversary and the first set of Program Performance Standards were established in 1975.

Prior to the Oval Office, President Carter served as the head of a county planning board in Georgia where he helped set up 20 Head Start classrooms when the program launched. While President Carter advocated for the controversial idea of moving Head Start under the Department of Education (which did not happen in the end), he sang Head Start’s praises. As a result, the program’s budget nearly doubled during his four years in office. In 1980, President Carter held a White House reception in honor of Head Start’s 15th anniversary. Many of the program’s original champions where there, including Lady Bird Johnson.

President Reagan, too, built a lasting Head Start legacy with the creation of Head Start Awareness Month in 1982.

“Perhaps the most significant factor in the success of Head Start has been the involvement of parents, volunteers, and the community. Their commitment and the services provided by dedicated Head Start staff have been instrumental in creating a quality program that truly provides young children with a "head start" in life."

Presidents through the 90s

Fast forward to 1992, President George H.W. Bush visited the Emily Harris Head Start Center in Catonsville, Maryland.

“Many children need a head start, and we're going to make sure they get it. Today I'm pleased to announce that we're taking a large step toward meeting that first crucial goal. In the budget that I'll submit later this month, I will ask Congress for a $600 million increase in Head Start, the largest increase ever,” he remarked during the visit. He fullfiled his promise, contributing to Head Start’s continued growth.

During the Clinton Presidency, Congress passed the landmark Head Start reauthorization that introduced Early Head Start and expanded services to infants and toddlers.

“This is a program that is built at the grassroots by families and teachers and communities. I've often said that governments can't raise children, that people have to do that, but parents need help in a lot of places in this country today just like they did 29 years ago,” President Clinton said as he signed the reauthorization in 1992.

From 2000 to Today

Fifteen years later, Head Start’s most recent reauthorization occurred under the George W. Bush Administration. And President Obama visited several Head Start programs during his time in office.

"For millions of families, Head Start has been a lifeline. And for millions of kids, it’s been the start of a better life," he said on the program’s 50th anniversary. "Over the past half century, 32 million children have benefited from its early learning and development programs. They’ve recited their numbers and ABCs, raced around playgrounds, and learned thousands of new words. On this 50th anniversary, our challenge is to make Head Start even stronger, and to help more children and families benefit from its good work."

Federal support for Head Start grew during the Trump Administration. Head Start’s federal funding increased substantially. The president’s daughter visited a Head Start program to highlight the need for expanded high-quality and affordable early care and education.

The Biden Administration has continued the history of support for Head Start. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visited a Head Start program in Pennsylvania. She held the program up as an excellent example of early childhood innovation and community partnership.

Head Start’s growth and success over six decades and 11 Administrations is a remarkable show of bipartisan support. Thank you to the presidents—past, present, and future—who make it possible for Head Start to make a difference in our children and families’ lives.