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Trump’s Pick for HHS Secretary Advocated for State Control of Head Start

By Christina A. Samuels — November 29, 2016 3 min read
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Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., President-elect Donald Trump’s selection as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, once pushed to allow up to eight states to take the Head Start programs located there.

The federally funded preschool program for low-income children is a part of HHS. Price’s amendment, which was ultimately rejected 254-165, would have been part of a bill that reauthorized
funding for Head Start. The proposal had been offered by Republican legislators in 2003 as well, and could offer a hint of Price’s priorities toward Head Start, now its 51st year.

Price, an orthopedic surgeon, currently serves as the chairman of the House Budget Committee. An outspoken opponent of the Affordable Care Act, Price’s congressional district is in suburban Atlanta.

Currently, Head Start money generally goes directly to grantees in all 50 states, and those grantees directly manage individual preschool programs. (Some large cities, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, are “supergrantees” that oversee agencies, and those agencies in turn oversee preschool providers.)

The Price amendment would have created a demonstration program for states to coordinate their existing state-run preschool programs with Head Start.

“In 1965, when Head Start was implemented, state-run early-childhood development programs didn’t exist,” Price said in support of his amendment in 2007, when the House of Representatives was controlled by Democrats. “Since then, and most recently, and in the past 15 years, states have invested considerable resources into early childhood initiatives.”

The states participating in the program would have had to ensure that the children in the blended model would receive health, nutrition, and mental health services that are comparable to those offered by Head Start, he said. “Enacting a demonstration program will result in expanding the number of children that can be served, which is not possible in Head Start or just a state-run program alone,” he said.

Price’s amendment was similar to a Head Start funding bill that passed the Republican-controlled House in 2003. It, too, would have created an eight-state pilot program, but the proposal was dropped in a compromise bill.

In arguing against Price’s amendment, former Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California, said the proposal “would simply end Head Start as we know it in those eight states.” There would be no requirement that the pilot states run a program that is as comprehensive or as high in quality as Head Start, Miller said.

“I daresay that we have watched over the last decades effort after effort be made to block grant programs. Generally, where they have been successful, they have been the first step to the budget cuts, to the loss of quality. That’s what’s involved here,” Miller said.

Changes to Head Start Over Time

Since that 2007 debate, Head Start has made significant changes in how it is run. Head Start grantees have started competing for continued funding, a process that started during the Obama administration. The federal government has also supported a partnership between local child-care providers and Early Head Start, which pays for services to children under 4. The Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership Grants are intended to boost the quality of local day cares, by requiring them to meet federal standards that are often tougher than those required by the state.

Head Start has also recently revamped its performance standards, adding requirements for improved teacher training and a longer school day and year, among other changes.

But the early-childhood landscape has also changed. All but five states now have some sort of state-funded preschool program, and the Education Department has also funneled over $1 billion into early-childhood programs through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant program and Preschool Development Grants.

Head Start proponents have argued that its program is different from just preschool because of its focus on parent development and on child well-being, as well as academic readiness. Supporters will have to make those same arguments in a much more partisan climate when the program comes up for reauthorization, a process about four years overdue.

Photo: Rep. Tom Price appears in January 2015 before the Rules Committee, joined at right by Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky.— (J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File)

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