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What's Next for Head Start?

The election is over. President Obama decisively won a second term. So will we finally find out what's going to happen in the Head Start recompetition?

And will the overdue Head Start evaluation that is looking at whether the positive effects of Head Start participation last through 3rd grade finally be released?

Or do we have to wait for the White House and Congress to strike a deal to avert the fiscal cliff?

Last we heard, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it intended to announce which agencies will be awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in Head Start grants in December, which, of course, is still two weeks away.

Roughly 130 agencies that were singled out a year go by the Obama administration to compete to keep their federal Head Start dollars have been waiting since summer to find out whether they'll continue to provide early-childhood services to low-income children or if the money will go to a competing organization. Unfortunately, federal Health and Human Services officials have been extraordinarily tight-lipped about this process, refusing even to announce how many bidders applied for the various Head Start grants up for grabs.

Republican congressional leaders haven't been able to get that information either.

Lots of folks are on edge about this, as the stakes are high. This is the first time in Head Start history that long-time recipients of the grant funds had to recompete to keep their funding and the Obama administration has touted the process as the best way to weed out low-quality providers of Head Start services.

As for the delayed Head Start evaluation—better known as the "Third Grade Follow-Up Study—members of Congress have also been seeking an explanation from the agency for why it hasn't been released. The evaluation was mandated by Congress in the 1998 reauthorization of Head Start and the publication of the final piece of it—which is the 3rd grade study—has been pushed back a few times. An earlier phase of the study—which found that the positive effects of Head Start participation that showed up at the end of one program year had diminished by the end of the 1st grade—was released in 2010.

Last month, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Sen. Tom Coburn from Oklahoma, wrote a letter to HHS asking not only to see the final study, which they believe has been finished, but raising questions about the rising costs of the evaluation.

They have received no response.

In answer to my query about the study's expected publication date, HHS spokesman Mark Weber wrote this in an email: "Head Start is an important investment that helps prepare our kids to compete with kids all over the world for good-paying, middle-class jobs. The Obama administration has strengthened and reformed the program to improve quality and accountability and ensure a good experience for every participant. We have received the letter [from Congress] and are preparing a response. The study will be released when it is completed."

So here, too, the stakes are high. If the study was to be published before the fiscal cliff is resolved, it could influence how lawmakers might deal with pushing to cut or spare Head Start in budget negotiations with the White House. And the status of of that issue could very well delay an announcement on the outcome of recompetition, but let's hope not.


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