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Head Start and the Other Half of the Charter Bargain

Writing about new Head Start "recompete" regulations on Wednesday, I said that the regs "essentially move Head Start towards a charter-like model, in which continued receipt of federal funding is contingent on demonstrated quality and performance."

That's true in the sense that Head Start grants will now be in the form of 5-year contracts, with continuation after the 5 year term based on performance, and the potential to discontinue non-performing grantees when their contracts expire.

But I forgot one important part of the charter bargain: Charter schools get increased autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic regulations in exchange for increased accountability inherent in the charter contract. That's not true with these new Head Start regs, as Steve Barnett's comments to TIME earlier this week reminded me. Head Start grantees will still be subject to lengthy and detailed performance standards (such as a requirement that sleeping cots be placed 3 feet apart) that require both resources and effort to comply with. These standards were designed with the best of intentions to support children's development and protect health and safety, but they have a side effect of restricting program innovation and take up resources programs might otherwise use differently to promote children's learning. Further, the recompete itself is based in part on compliance with performance and financial standards, as well as observed classroom quality using the CLASS, and does not include any effort to measure child outcomes.

That's not to diminish the momentous policy change reflected in the "recompete" rules, or their real potential to drive quality improvements by closing down low-performing providers and replacing them with better ones. But, ultimately, the ability of recompete regulations to drive improvements in Head Start outcomes is only as good as the extent to which it focuses on those outcomes and the factors most likely to drive them. And bureacratic rules are also an obstacle to attracting high-quality new providers to the space.

Slightly tangential to this: The point Barnett raises about Head Start Performance Standards gets to a concern I have with the Quality Rating and Improvement Systems that states are encouraged to establish under the Early Learning Challenge program. Both sets of standards include certain mandates that are designed to ensure quality exceeds a certain floor. The problem with this is that sometimes floors can become ceilings, and provisions designed to ensure a minimum of quality in weaker providers can actually constrain the ability of higher performers to innovate or reallocate resources to more effectively serve kids.

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