The first phase of a competition for federal Head Start dollars opened today for dozens of current and prospective providers, including those who have been cited for deficiencies in the past and now must vie for dollars they once received automatically.
Regulations created last fall require Head Start providers that fall short of federal quality standards to compete with other potential providers for funding, instead of being guaranteed a share of $7.6 billion in Head Start grants. Automatic renewal had been the norm since the program was created in 1964.
“We are committed to funding only those organizations that can provide the highest-quality services to our children and families,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, whose agency oversees Head Start.
Providers in nearly 100 service areas across the country are affected by the new competitive requirements, including those in Blair County, Pa.; Marshall, Norman, and Polk counties, in Minnesota; and Alexander, Hardin, Johnson, Massac, Pope, Pulaski, and Union counties in Illinois.
Grants for regions of the country that must compete will be issued in two waves, to coincide with the current funding cycle for these areas and keep transitions smooth for children in case the funding for the place they attend Head Start now is not renewed, said Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the Office of Head Start, during a press call with reporters.
“This is the strongest action in the history of the Head Start program,” Ms. Sanchez said Thursday. “It’s one tool we have in our tool box for ensuring accountability and quality services to our most vulnerable families.”
By the Numbers
Head Start and Early Head Start work with about 1 million children—infants to 5-year-olds—from low-income families each year, as well as pregnant women, and their families. There are about 1,600 Head Start and Early Head Start grantees across the country.
The competition for funds begins for providers in 97 service areas now—applications are listed on Grants.gov—and the race for dollars for Head Start sites in another 100 service areas kicks off in May. Each phase will allow 90 days for applications. But the federal government said it’s unclear exactly when grant winners will be named.
Among the 132 current organizations that must compete to keep serving as a Head Start provider are the two largest programs in the country, in Los Angeles and New York City.
The Office of Head Start released grant forecasts that show it may award multiple grants in areas where one organization has been the only grant winner for years. For example, in communities now served by the Los Angeles County Office of Education Head Start Programs, the agency predicts it may award from one grant to as many as 24.
Virginia, with 11 agencies that must compete for their funding to continue, has the largest number of programs. Ohio has 10. New York has nine.
“While the regulations may seem tough, quality conditions are not new,” said Joy Trehol, director of the Campagna Center, a Head Start site in Alexandria, Va., on the call with reporters. “My No. 1 priority is to ensure the children and families who walk through our doors are fully prepared for kindergarten.”
Sizing Up Competition
There have been some questions about whether there will be a large enough pool of competitors vying for the federal Head Start dollars against existing grantees. However, many Head Start grantees contract with providers, and it’s expected that some of those subcontractors will compete to get federal money directly.
The federal government created a website to guide those competing for grants, which may be especially helpful to first-time applicants.
Meanwhile, federal researchers studying the effectiveness of Head Start’s social and emotional instruction have asked for more time to follow up with children and parents in the program, a recent notice in the Federal Register says.
The Head Start Classroom-based Approaches and Resource for Emotion and Social skill-promotion project, run by the Administration for Children and Families at the Health and Human Services Department, is trying to identify the best ways to prepare the program’s 3- and 4-year-olds socially to start kindergarten.
Researchers have surveyed parents, teachers, and coaches in more than 100 Head Start centers and interviewed and assessed 1,042 3-year-olds and 2,885 4-year-olds. They want an extension of the project to collect more follow-up information on former 4-year-old Head Start students entering kindergarten in 2012.
Education Week Staff Writer Sarah D. Sparks contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week