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Head Start 'Recompetition' Moves Into Review Stage

By last week, the roughly 130 agencies that were slated to vie to keep their federal Head Start dollars had to submit lengthy applications. Now it's up to a panel of experts to decide if those agencies will keep some or all of the funding, or if the grants will be awarded to new applicants.

Remember that this is the first time in the federal program's history that long-time Head Start grant recipients have to "recompete" to continue receiving their funds. The Obama administration has made a big deal out of this policy change that has put some of the largest Head Start grants in the nation—Los Angeles County and New York City among them—up for grabs. Most of the organizations that are recompeting are county and city agencies, public school systems, or large, community-based organizations.

So how many applicants are there? And will the public get to see those applications? Who are the judges?

I put those questions to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services earlier today. The response: no comment.

Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, told me in an email that the agency would issue a news release when the grant awards are made, but would not provide answers to any of those other questions I asked. The awards aren't scheduled to be announced until some time in December.

I'm a bit baffled and am hoping to get a fuller explanation for why basic information such as the number of applicants would be off-limits. Perhaps there is concern that the process didn't yield a robust number of new applicants, or that if it did in fact bring in lots of new potential recipients, revealing that number at this stage could somehow taint the final outcome.

Given the attention and effort the administration put into this Head Start reform, I thought it might track similarly with the transparency of its other signature grant competitions such as Race to the Top. In the Race to the Top K-12 sweepstakes, the Education Department disclosed which states applied, and publicly released those applications. They did keep judges' names under wraps until after the winners were announced, but they did at least reveal some telling demographic information about who the reviewers were.

In the meantime, I made some other inquiries to try and gauge how much application activity there may have been. Rick Mockler, who heads up the California Head Start Association, told me that all four agencies that had to recompete in his state are doing so. Those include the Los Angeles County Office of Education and Contra Costa County in the Bay Area. Los Angeles County, he said, actively encouraged all of its delegate providers of Head Start services to directly apply for funding and most did. In Contra Costa, though, he said at least one of the delegate providers there had decided not to directly compete and to keep itself tied to the fate of the county's application.

Because large grant recipients like Los Angeles County are more likely to have their grants broken apart, it makes more sense for delegate agencies to apply directly for funding, he said. The federal Office of Head Start signaled that as many as 24 individual grants could be awarded in Los Angeles County, for example.

Tim Nolan, the chief executive of National Centers for Learning Excellence, Inc., a Head Start grantee in Waukesha County, Wis., which has not been slated for recompetition, said that if long-time recipients lose their grants, there will be a very "awkward stage" of figuring out how to shut programs down and transfer them.

"We don't have a model for taking an operating institution, shutting it down, and replacing it with a new operating institution almost overnight," he said.


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