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House Lawmakers Demand Answers About N.Y.C. Head Start Inspections

Two House education committee members have written a letter to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, demanding to know why New York City's Head Start grant was not suspended or revoked after inspections revealed wide-ranging concerns about child safety. The Office of Head Start is a part of HHS. 

The letter, released Tuesday, came from U.S. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota and U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, both Republicans. Kline serves as chairman of the House education committee, and Rokita is the chairman of the early-education subcommittee.

In the letter, they say that HHS knew in December about serious problems in some of the centers overseen by the New York City Administration for Children's Services. But, the lawmakers claimed, the Office of Head Start gave the New York City agency 120 days to fix the probems, a level of leniency that Head Start has not shown to other grantees.

The New York Administration for Children's Services is known as a "super-grantee" in the Head Start world. The agency receives about $130 million, which it then distributes to other agencies that provide direct services. Nearly 200 centers in New York City provide Head Start services to 13,000 children. 

The letter says the deficiencies were outlined in a Jan. 20 report from the Head Start office to the New York administrators. That report, based on inspections made in December, has not been released to the public. But the lawmakers' letter says the report alleges that 28 centers were not licensed; that there were 17 incidences of teachers hitting, biting or pushing students; that some playgrounds and facilities had hazardous equipment; and that rat and rodent droppings were found in the kitchen or meal areas of some centers. 

"In one instance, a teacher allegedly hit a 4-year-old child with a belt and was allowed to return to the classroom after a two-week reassignment," said the letter from the lawmakers, quoting from the inspection report. 

'Divergent Path'

The lawmakers' letter outlined other cases where Head Start grants have been revoked or suspended. In such cases, Head Start hires a contractor to come in and provide management so that service can continue without disruption. For example, a Head Start grantee in Hattiesburg, Miss., lost its grant in 2014 after an employee was accused of sexually abusing a child. News reports said that the Head Start director did not report the accusation for more than two years and failed to remove the teacher from the classroom. 

"The decision to allow [the New York City Administration for Children's Services] to continue operating its grant appears to represent a divergent path from other decisions regarding safety concerns at centers," the letter said. HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell was asked a series of questions, including what criteria Head Start uses when it decides to suspend or terminate a grant, and what deficiencies are considered worthy of an immediate halt to federal funding. 

The Office of Head Start and the New York City Administration for Children's Services were both contacted Tuesday evening and had not yet responded to Education Week inquiries. However, these allegations were covered March 1 in an article that ran in the New York Post. In that article, the newspaper quoted a statement from a spokesman from the Administration for Children's Services, who said: "All the issues cited in the report were either addressed immediately, or we are enforcing a corrective action plan to resolve them."

Head Start centers are currently going through a review process called designation renewal which, for the first time, requires grantees to compete for continued funding. New York was among the Head Start recipients singled out for competition in the first round, which was was held in 2011. In 2013, the new grant recipients were named. The city agency retained much of its grant, but some of its "delegate agencies"—the centers that provide the services to children—became direct recipients of Head Start funds.

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