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At Long Last, Motion on Head Start Re-Compete--and Opportunities for Early Childhood Social Entrepreneurs

Big White House announcement today around Head Start quality, and new rules that would require up low-performing Head Start grantees to compete with other providers to keep federal funding.

Key background here: Head Start is a federal early childhood program that awards grants directly to local grantees. Historically, once a provider received a Head Start grant, it held the grant essentially in perpetuity, unless it committed a significant violation. The 2007 Head Start reauthorization, however, changed this. The legislation set a term of 5 years for Head Start grants, required the Department of Health and Human Services to renew Head Start grants only for grantees delivering high-quality services, and gave the Secretary of Health and Human Services to "recompete" grants held by low-performing providers.

In September, 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services issued draft rules for Head Start recompetition that were very strong---requiring a minimum of 25% of grants to be subject to recompetition, and including measures of classroom quality, as well as programmatic compliance, in the criteria for identifying low-performing providers.

But, in the more than a year since those draft regs were issued, there's been virtual radio silence from the administration on the Head Start recompete--until now.

In today's announcement, the President and Secretary Sebelius reiterated the administration's commitment to Head Start recompetition and announced that the first set of grantees subject to recompetition will be notified this December.

While the administration's framing around this announcement is a bit cynical (is it really "taking matters into our own hands" to implement something Congress already passed legislation requiring the administration to do, after sitting on it for nearly a year?), that should hardly detract from the moment of what's happening here. Early childhood advocates may be excited about Early Learning Challenge, inserting an early childhood component into ESEA, or the creation of a new Early Childhood office in the Department of Education.

But the real game in federal early childhood policy is improving the effectiveness of the substantial resources the federal government already invests in early childhood education--with Head Start being the big enchilada here. Head Start programs are far from the failure some critics claim: Head Start has been demonstrated to have higher quality than early childhood settings participants would otherwise attend, and to produce positive impacts on learning for participants. But that doesn't mean Head Start is as effective as it could be, or as effective as the highest-performing pre-k programs, and there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that some Head Start providers are not delivering high-quality services at all.

Opening up the lowest performing grants to recompetition is an important step in improving quality and outcomes in Head Start programs--and the returns on significant federal investments in them.

The recompete regs essentially move Head Start towards a charter-like model, in which continued receipt of federal funding is contingent on demonstrated quality and performance. The downside to that, of course, is that we know that too many low-performing charter schools have not been closed---and there's a very good chance the same will happen with Head Start.

That's because getting the greatest bang for the buck out of recompetition is going to require a supply of higher quality providers who are willing and able to successfully compete for the re-opened Head Start grants. And, given that the administration is predicting up to one-third of grantees will be up for re-competition, it's not clear that supply exists today--both because there is a dearth of high-quality early childhood providers generally, and because many of those that do exist lack the background knowledge to successfully navigate complex Head Start requirements and bureacracy.

This creates a huge opening for social philanthropy and educational entrepreneurs who are interested in serving the early childhood market. A number of social philanthropists and existing educational entrepreneurs, including high-performing charter school operators such as KIPP and Harlem Success, have recognized the need for high-quality pre-k programs to help them achieve their goals of narrowing achievement gaps and improving achievement for low-income students. But a major barrier to growth of high-performing social entrepreneurs in the pre-k space has been a lack of the kind of stable and adequate public funding streams available to charter schools in the K-12 sector.

Head Start recompetition opens up a new potential funding stream for social entrepreneurs operating in the pre-k space. The challenge for the social entrepreneurial sector is providing resources and support to foster the development and growth of these organizations and enable them to successfully compete for Head Start grants.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead's Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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