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New Head Start Designations Announced

Over the past year, this blog has covered the Head Start designation renewal process, in which Head Start grantees that fail to meet certain performance measures are required to "recompete" for their grants. In December 2011, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which manages Head Start, notified 132 grantees that they would be required to re-apply for their grants. These grantees, and other agencies wishing to compete for Head Start grants, submitted applications in Summer 2012, but then heard nothing for months--to the considerable frustration of both the programs and early childhood policy analysts who wondered if something had gone off the rails with ACF's designation renewal process.

Today, ACF released the list of 160 applicants that have been selected for the redesignated grants. These selections are preliminary--selected grantees will still need to negotiate the specifics of their grants (including the exact amount of funding they will receive per child) with ACF.

As I previously predicted, most Head Start grantees identified for designation renewal will wind up keeping their grants. ACF reports that, of 125 providers require to compete for funding, 80 were able to retain their grants. 25 previous grantees lost their grants to new applicants. And 14 existing grantees will see their previous awards split up--the existing grantees will continue to receive some Head Start funds and serve children, but the grant will be divided and some funds will now go to other organizations that are new Head Start grantees. In some cases, these new grantees are already delivering Head Start programs as delegate agencies of the existing grantee, but will now receive Head Start funds directly from the federal government, rather than from another agency. These divisions of some grants are why the number of grantees announced today is larger than the number of grantees that were required to re-compete for funds. (Astute observers will note that 80+25+14 add up to less than 125, and that 125, the number of grantees ACF is saying were subject to designation renewal in this round, is lower than the 132 grantees notified in December 2011. I'm not sure why that is but will try to find out).

It also appears that 4 of the 10 Ohio Head Start agencies identified for designation renewal lost their funds and that both Massachusetts agencies identified for designation renewal kept theirs. I'm not sure what, if any, implications this has for the lawsuit brought against HHS by the Ohio Head Start Association, Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, Massachusetts Association for Community Action, and Southeastern Association of Community Action Agencies. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled to be heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit this Friday.

The loss of grants by a substantial portion of grantees identified for designation renewal demonstrates that ACF is serious about using designation renewal as a tool to strengthen accountability, replace underperforming programs, and improve overall quality in Head Start. Some observers may think the percentage losing grants (roughly 20%) is too low, given that programs are subject to designation renewal only if they have already failed to meet certain standards. Two factors are worth taking into account here: First, many of the programs identified for designation renewal in the first round were identified based on administrative factors, which are in some cases easily remedied and may not necessarily mean the program wasn't doing a good job of serving children. Also, some larger agencies could be identified for designation renewal based on performance findings related to one of their delegate agencies, and may already have addressed the problems by terminating their relationships with the delegate agency. Second, ACF's ability to award a grant to another provider depends, in part, on the existence of another provider in the same geographic area that is able and willing to provide a better-quality Head Start program. Such providers may not have emerged in some areas. Just another reason the early childhood field needs to focus more on building the supply of quality providers.

One big question here is how sequestration will affect the negotiations between ACF and the grantees that have received preliminary identification for awards. Since Head Start slots are being cut in some existing providers, what will that mean for grants to brand new providers? Will all geographic areas lose slots by the same amount? In providers whose funds are being split, will the impact of sequestration fall evenly on all grantees? Will sequestration primarily impact the numbers of slots or also per-pupil funding levels? Also, in conjunction with its preschool announcements earlier this year, the Administration has indicated some goals for additional Head Start reforms and changes, further details of which are likely to be included in next week's budget proposal. Will these goals have any impact on the negotiations, particularly as relates to funding for 3 year-olds vs. 4-year-olds?

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