Early Childhood

Outgoing HHS Secretary Led Department During Head Start Grant Overhaul

By Christina A. Samuels — April 11, 2014 2 min read
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Cross-posted from Politics K-12

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius submitted her resignation to President Obama this week, a move that has prompted widespread assessment of her work during the flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

But in the education sphere and early-childhood arena, Sebelius also leaves behind a substantial legacy. The office of Head Start is a part of the Health and Human Services Department, and during her tenure, the federal early-education program for children from low-income families started requiring some of its organizations to compete for money in a bid to increase provider quality. The new funding rules, known as designation renewal, were a major departure from the previous practice of allowing groups to hold on to Head Start funding for years, as long as there were no major safety or financial problems with the programs.

“With this new rule, we are introducing unprecedented accountability in the Head Start program,” Sebelius said in a statement in 2011. The results of the first competition were announced last year, and two additional groups of providers are going through the process.

Sebelius, who joined the administration in 2009, also served as a tag-team partner with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in promoting a proposal from the White House to boost state-run preschool programs with $75 billion over 10 years from the federal government. They both visited child-care centers and made other joint appearances to talk up the proposal.

“We have a moral and economic imperative to make sure no child has fallen behind by the first day of kindergarten,” Sebelius said in March 2013, during an appearance at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park, Md.

A former governor of Kansas and a former chairwoman of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, Sebelius also took the lead in promoting vaccinations during the swine flu outbreak of 2009, even going so far as to chide NBC News reporter Chuck Todd for incorrect sneezing etiquette:

“We respect Secretary Sebelius’s stalwart support of Head Start and her tireless efforts to promote access to quality early childhood education. She has been diligent in her responsibility to our nation’s poorest children,” said Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, in a statement.

UPDATE: Duncan released a statement Friday afternoon saying that Sebelius was an “extraordinary advocate for children” and a “tremendous partner to me as this administration works to ensure that every child gets a high-quality education from cradle to career.”

President Obama reportedly will nominate Sylvia Mathews Burwell, currently the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, to the health and human services post. She has been the OMB director since April of last year. A native of Hinton, W.Va., Burwell has also been an executive at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with stints as a vice president, chief operating officer, and president of its global-development-fund program.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.