The announcement that a new wave of more than 100 Head Start grantees will need to recompete for their federal funding has redoubled attention on the federal government’s efforts to ensure the effectiveness of the $8 billion preschool program that serves about 1 million low-income children.
The 122 grantees notified this month that they would be part of the “designation renewal” process join 132 others that learned in December 2011 that they would have to compete for funds that, in some cases, they have managed for decades.
The results of that first competition have not yet been announced; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ office of Head Start has the option to take money away from current grantees and distribute it among new providers.
“Providing robust, open competition for Head Start funding will not only provide opportunities for new organizations to offer services, but it also increases the number of low-income children in high-quality care,” said Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, the director for the Head Start office, in a statement.
So far, the federal government has told 254 of the nation’s approximately 1,600 Head Start grantees that they have to reapply to the federal government in order to continue receiving funds. Twenty-three of the grantees are associated with the public school districts.
Round 1 (December 2011)
• California—Los Angeles County Board of Education
• Connecticut—New Haven Public Schools
• Georgia—Baldwin County Board of Education
• Kentucky—Lincoln County Board of Education
• Pennsylvania—School District of Pittsburgh
• Texas—Hitchcock Independent School District
• Virginia—Augusta County Public Schools; Orange County Board of Education;
Virginia-Richmond City Public School District
• Wisconsin—Milwaukee Public Schools
Round 2 (January 2013)
• California—Colusa County Office of Education; El Dorado County Office of Education
• Colorado—Morgan County School District RE-3
• Georgia—Hancock County Board of Education
• Kansas—Geary County Unified School District #475
• Louisiana—Recovery School District
• Massachusetts—Worcester Public Schools
• Michigan—Southfield Public Schools
• Nebraska—Plattsmouth Community Schools
• New Mexico—Las Cruces School District #2
• Ohio—Celina City Schools
• Texas—Region XIX Education Service Center
• West Virginia—Regional Education Service Agency VIII
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
But advocates for the 48-year-old Head Start program—even some who were in favor of a mechanism to weed out poorly-performing programs—say they have reservations about the way the federal government has launched the competition process. They say some grantees are being told they need to fight for continued funding because they’ve failed to meet minor compliance issues.
“The conversation we kept having is, really, how do you measure that overall quality? I don’t think the system quite has that down,” said Yasmina S. Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association in Alexandria, Va., a private nonprofit organization representing the nation’s 1,600 Head Start providers.
The federal Head Start office was supposed to release the results of the first competition late last year; that announcement has now been put off until some time this spring.
In December, that office released a report on Head Start effectiveness that noted that while the program produced initial positive impacts, those gains rapidly dissipated by the time the children reached 3rd grade, leaving Head Start students indistinguishable from their counterparts who were not enrolled in the program.
That report matches the results of an earlier study that showed most of the benefits of Head Start for children appeared to fade by 1st grade. The report renewed a drumbeat of criticism, including from the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, which says the government should get out of the business of providing early-childhood programs, or should give the money directly to low-income families so that they can find their own preschool providers.
The Head Start community “feels very beaten up,” said Ms. Vinci, of the National Head Start Association. Other studies of different early-childhood programs suggest that good programs offer long-term benefits to students that can’t be measured with a snapshot at 3rd grade, she said.
The competition process was mandated in the Head Start Act of 2007. The office of Head Start selected an evaluation tool called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System to monitor programs. Known as CLASS, the tool measures Head Start programs in three domains: emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Head Start grantees that have had their licenses revoked or that have had other management or fiscal problems are told to compete for continued federal funding. Grantees that score too low in one or more domains on the CLASS tool must also compete.
But some grantees say those measures are being used in too exacting a fashion. Ronald Walker, the superintendent of the 8,000-student Geary County district in Junction City, Kan., said that his school system’s Head Start program of 275 children was penalized for several reasons: A bus driver was brought on staff a few days before his background check was completed, and a student’s dental checkup was not done in the time federal regulations stipulate. Those two issues caused the center’s monitoring system in general to also be deemed out of compliance, a third strike against the program.
“It might be time for Congress to take a look at the entire process, and maybe allow effectiveness to be defined in a different manner,” said Mr. Walker, whose district in northeast Kansas serves primarily the children of soldiers based at nearby Fort Riley. “Any program becomes ineffective when you have a thousand pages of regulations.”
Tim Nolan, the chief executive officer of a Head Start grantee in Waukesha, Wis., said the center was asked to compete for funds because it was a hundredth of a point below a cut-off score in the domain of classroom organization.
Before being notified that it had to compete for renewed funding, Mr. Nolan’s center, which serves 275 students in Head Start and 102 infants and toddlers in Early Head Start, had hosted a week-long visit from Head Start evaluators in October 2011 and was found fully compliant. Several weeks later, a single evaluator returned to the center to assess it using the new CLASS tool. It was that score that triggered designation renewal.
“We’ve made identifying the lowest-performing agencies much more difficult than it has to be,” said Mr. Nolan, who was an early and ardent supporter of developing a process to find and fix low-performing Head Start programs. The department could seek the advice of Head Start’s regional directors, who are familiar with the individual programs, including those that don’t measure up, he said.
‘Embracing This Process’
Kaye Medellin, the executive director of child development for the El Dorado County Office of Education in Placerville, Calif., said her center missed the cutoff score in the instructional support domain by four one-hundredths of a point. Her center serves 498 children in Head Start and Early Head Start.
“Eventually, all grantees will be faced with recompetition” because the office of Head Start is transitioning from indefinite grants to five-year grants, Ms. Medellin said in an email. “El Dorado is embracing this process and is confident in securing future funding to continue to serve our children and families.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as New Scrutiny as Head Start Centers Recompete for Aid