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False Fears on Head Start Recompete

I feel a little churlish picking at Simon van Zuylen-Wood's recent TNR piece on Head Start recompetition, given that TNR is actually covering early childhood issues that are typically woefully under-covered by the media, and that van Zuylen-Wood actually does unearth some legitimate issues with how the first stage of recompetition is playing out. But those virtues are outweighed by some pretty fundamental confusion, as witnessed from the piece's very title: "How America's Latest Education Initiative Could Threaten American Preschool."

Leave aside for a second that Head Start is only one piece of a larger constellation of "preschool" programs, and serves fewer kids that state-funded pre-k. Head Start is important because it's the oldest and biggest federal investment in early childhood education and serves almost exclusively poor children who most need quality preschool. But is recompetition a "threat" to Head Start? No!

van Zuylen-Wood focuses on the plight of 132 Head Start grantees that may now lose funding due to identified deficiencies. He emphasizes the threat to both jobs and students served in these programs. But such concern neglects a fundamental point. This is a re-competition. Current grantees aren't simply being de-funded. Rather, they are being asked to compete for their grants against other potential providers who may come forward. The whole point is to identify the best available provider to continue delivering services to kids and communities--not to cut services.

If anything, the bigger concern is that not enough low-performing Head Start grantees will lose funding, because there is a lack of quality providers with the capacity to replace them. I've spoken with folks from some of these 132 places who know that their current Head Start provider is lousy but despair of finding a better provider to compete for the grant. There's been no sustained effort (by funders or the feds) to identify and build the capacity of high-performing providers to compete for Head Start grants, which carry an array of very complex requirements. Even though recompete was part of the 2007 Head Start reauthorization, until final regs and letters went out late last year, no one was certain it was going to happen, so few providers had incentive to invest in developing their capacity.

van Zuylen-Wood does raise some valid points, though, particularly the challenges facing "delegate" agencies that receive funding from a larger "supergrantee," such as New York City's Administration for Children's Services, whose delegates serve more than 19,000 children. Under current rules, these large grantees are subject to recompetition if any of their delegates had deficiencies sufficient to trigger recompete. So a delegate agency in one of these communities now faces uncertainty about its continued funding even if it has a perfect track record and strong quality. Delegate agencies could try to compete for the grants themselves (HHS's forecast of grant opportunities projects a larger number of grantees than currently exist in most of these communities), but smaller delegate agencies may be uncertain about their ability to write a successful recompetition application--another way in which the failure to invest in building capacity creates problems--or may fear retaliation from supergrantee agencies, which often control other funding streams. This is a question with real trade-offs, and there are good reasons HHS chose to do things this way, but there are also real costs for some providers.

It's also true that grantees were identified for recompetition this year based on past administrative data--not new quality measures such as CLASS, which will begin triggering recompetition next year. But some previously identified deficiencies are clearly relevant to quality, and others--such as proper use of funds or background checking employees--are still important. Once CLASS requirements kick in next year, we'll likely see more grantees identified for recompetition.

The bigger issue here, of course, is that Head Start has lots of bureaucratic requirements that place great administrative burden on grantees, drive costs up, and don't necessarily contribute to improved child outcomes. If we're going to hold Head Start providers accountable for quality measures and student outcomes, then we should also streamline some of those requirements to give them greater freedom in how they operate and use resources to do so. This would also make it more appealing for high-quality providers to pursue Head Start grants in recompetition. That's probably not going to happen before the next reauthorization, but it should be an important goal for people who care about Head Start quality.

Ultimately, yes, Head Start recompete will lead to some disruption. But if we believe in the importance of early childhood education, that means we need to be serious about the performance of publicly funded providers. Head Start recompete is an important step to improve quality in Head Start, but policymakers, funders, and advocates must also work to put in place the other pieces--increased flexibility and support to build high-quality capacity--needed to get the greatest impact for kids here.

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