Concerns are mounting that strict new federal rules meant to improve the quality of Head Start preschool services for poor children could drive good providers out of business, as scores of Head Start programs begin to face the specter of losing the federal funding they have received for decades.
Under regulations that were announced late last year by President Barack Obama, agencies that fall short of the new federal quality standards for the Head Start program have to compete with other potential providers for funding, rather than automatically qualifying for it. The federal Office of Head Start announced in late December that 132 of the roughly 1,600 local providers of Head Start across the nation had failed to meet that quality bar and, for the first time ever, must compete.
The organizations cited—most of them county and city agencies, public school systems, or large, community-based organizations in 38 states, plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands—make up the first group of grantees to be tapped for “recompetition” under new rules that will force at least 25 percent of Head Start providers evaluated for quality in any given year to vie for funding against other providers in their communities. Those rules, which took effect in December, mandate Head Start programs to set and use school-readiness goals that include children’s achievement and progress in literacy development, cognition, and general knowledge; approaches to learning, physical well-being, and motor development; and social and emotional development.
The two largest Head Start programs in the nation—those administered by the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the New York City Administration for Children’s Services—are among the 132 that must compete for their continued funding in the coming months. Winners are likely to be announced in late summer.
While federal Head Start officials contend the new rules will weed out low performers and raise overall quality, some advocates and program directors worry that the regulations will ensnare otherwise strong programs for shortcomings that don’t add up to pervasive, systemic problems.
“It seems this has become as much about punishing programs that have broken some rules as it is about seeking out actual poor-performing programs,” said Barbara S. Haxton, the executive director of the Ohio Head Start Association. “This is a scenario where a single human error can land a very good program on this list.”
In this first round, Ohio has 10 agencies that must compete for their funding to continue, second only to Virginia, which has 11 agencies on the list. New York is in third place with nine grantees.
Begun in 1964 as part of the federal “war on poverty,” the $7.6 billion federal Head Start program serves close to 1 million infants, toddlers, and preschoolers from low-income families. President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2013 would increase Head Start funding to $8 billion.
Until now, competition has not been part of the program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Often, the local agencies that run the programs have held a virtual monopoly on the federal grant money, and there have long been concerns that quality across the programs is uneven.
The Office of Head Start has already released “grant forecasts” to show that it may award multiple grants in areas where one entity has long been the sole grantee. In the communities currently served by the Los Angeles County Office of Education Head Start programs, for example, the forecast is to award from one to 24 grants.
But in some communities, it’s not clear there will be a pool of viable competitors to seek some or all of the grant funding against the current grant-holding agencies, said Samuel J. Meisels, the president of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, a graduate school focused exclusively on child development.
“I have not seen on a national level that there are many providers, either for-profit or nonprofit, that are going to want to come in and take over these programs as new grantees,” Mr. Meisels said.
But Ms. Haxton of Ohio expects new players to emerge to compete with agencies in her state.
A chief concern among providers, Ms. Haxton said, is the possible disruption in services for children enrolled in programs that lose their funding.
“It could mean that children will have to move to new programs in the middle of the school year with new teachers, new surroundings, and new relationships,” she said.
Kenneth J. Wolfe, a Health and Human Services Department spokesman, said in an email that the “goal is to minimize the disruption of services to children and families in all grantee transitions. The president’s budget requests resources specifically around those transitions.”
In Contra Costa County, Calif., a federal review conducted in October 2009 resulted in a “deficiency” that has now put the Head Start program run by the county’s community-services agency on the list of organizations that must compete. A deficiency is a serious violation of the Head Start law and is defined as a “systemic or substantial material failure of an agency” that involves threats to health and safety, misuse of funds, and/or several other performance areas.
Contra Costa serves 2,200 children in its Head Start and Early Head Start programs, said Camilla Rand, the director of the county’s community-services agency. It directly operates 18 child-care centers and has partnerships with other providers to offer Head Start services at 13 additional locations in the county, in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to Rick Mockler, the executive director of the California Head Start Association, Contra Costa’s program is widely viewed as one of the state’s most exemplary, especially for its partnerships with community organizations that serve parts of the county where there are no county-run centers.
Review in Dispute
The agency’s deficiency finding stems in part from an incident at one such partner-run Early Head Start center that serves the children of teenage mothers at a high school in Richmond, Calif., Ms. Rand said. The reviewer who visited that center reported that children were allowed to cry “in excess of 60 minutes and that their needs were not responded to,” Ms. Rand said. Two Contra Costa County Head Start staff members who accompanied this reviewer saw a “very different story,” she said.
Staff members were preparing bottles during breakfast time, but took longer than usual because they had no bottle warmers, Ms. Rand said. “There were children who were crying because they were hungry,” Ms. Rand said. “But to say it went on for 60 minutes was completely outrageous.”
At one of the county’s own centers, a reviewer said that two children who got up from their mats at nap time were “forced to lie back down,” Ms. Rand said. “Our staff ... said these two children were guided back to their mats and encouraged to lie down.”
The two incidents added up to the deficiency finding. The county appealed it, but the finding was upheld by federal Head Start officials, Ms. Rand said.
Mr. Wolfe did not directly address the Contra Costa situation but said that a deficiency finding “can be the result of only one incident—if that singular incident is of itself extremely serious.”
“They did find two issues that they were unhappy with,” Ms. Rand said, “but they were in no way a systemic problem.”
During the same federal review process, the county’s Head Start classrooms were evaluated by reviewers who used the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS-Pre-K, which uses observations to gauge teacher-child interactions that research has shown are associated with “positive child development and later achievement.” By that measure—which will be used to evaluate all Head Start programs under the new rules—Contra Costa surpassed the national average, Ms. Rand said.
Providers are anxious that being designated to recompete is a disadvantage. Mr. Wolfe said that designation is not an “adverse action” and that providers on the recompete list “are fully eligible” to take part in the competition.
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Providers Fear New Head Start Rules Could Mean a Shake Out for the Field