In the coming weeks, the federal Office of Head Start expects to put out its first-ever official request for agencies to compete for funding to provide preschool services to poor children.
It's a sea change in the Head Start world, where in most communities, the same nonprofit, school district, or other local public agency has long held a virtual monopoly on the federal dollars that pay for early childhood education for some of the most vulnerable kids. Today, I have a story on edweek.org that spells out some of the anxieties among the agencies and providers that must now prove they can meet new rules for quality in order to retain some or all of their funding. There are 132 of these agencies—including the two largest providers of Head Start services in New York City and Los Angeles—that will have to recompete to continue their funding this year.
One of the most interesting predicaments I came across in reporting the story, but couldn't fit into my allotted space, is unfolding in New York City. The city's Administration of Children's Services agency oversees Head Start programs for roughly 120,000 children through more than 200 groups and nonprofits that actually provide the services. ACS—which receives $190 million a year in federal Head Start grants—is on the list of 132 agencies that must recompete, which means that all of the providers that run Head Start programs through that agency are in limbo. This scenario is playing out in most of the communities where large agencies must recompete for their Head Start money.
What's complicating things in New York though, is that ACS itself (before the federal rules changed) had instituted a new initiative to improve early childhood programs which is requiring a local competition for the Head Start dollars it receives. The simultaneous competitions have created a sort of double limbo for providers. Even if they win their funding through the local grant competition, ACS itself may not receive the same level of grant funding it has in past years to spread among the program providers.
One Head Start program director in New York City told me that federal Head Start officials have put him and his colleagues "between a rock and a hard place" because they are encouraging the providers to apply directly for the federal grants, which would mean they would go head-to-head against ACS, a difficult thing to do politically, he said.
Rick Mockler, the executive director of the California Head Start Association, told me that a similar situation is playing out in Los Angeles, where the long-time recipient of federal Head Start money must also recompete. But there's a significant difference, according to Mockler. There, officials in the Los Angeles County Office of Education are actively encouraging those providers to compete directly against them for the funding to ensure that services to children are not disrupted.