TOPEKA — The 28 local Head Start programs in Kansas and others across the nation are facing changes considered the most significant since Head Start was launched 45 years ago as a cornerstone of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
The chief goal of Head Start, which is federally funded, has been to better prepare low-income children for school. Studies show that those who do better at school tend to fare better as adults in the workforce.
But a study released this year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that the benefits of Head Start training largely disappeared or weren’t measurable beyond 1st grade, adding new fuel to long-ongoing calls for reform of the program.
"For many years there’s been criticism of the Head Start program because the way it is set up essentially guarantees that a grantee will be renewed each year unless something really egregious happened in the program like financial mismanagement and there’s been very few examples of that," said Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan, Washington, D.C., think tank. "So, there haven’t been that many incentives for Head Start programs to improve themselves."
President George Bush in 2002 launched the Good Start, Grow Smart initiative, which aimed to strengthen Head Start’s academic results by working more closely with states to beef up the professionalism of Head Start teachers.
The Obama administration carried forward the Bush reforms and also used the economic stimulus of 2009 to funnel an additional $2 billion to Head Start programs nationally for a total of about $8.2 billion. Now, the current administration also is unleashing a new set of Head Start regulations that some critics of the program are calling, "the strongest" corrective since the program began.
The proposed new rules were posted Sept. 22 in the Federal Register. They are open for public comment until Dec. 21.
If adopted, they would require the weakest or poorest performing 25 percent of Head Start programs to "re-compete," for the federal funding that for most has become more-or-less automatic. The weakest 25 percent would be determined by evaluators using a set of seven "triggers," including reports from evaluators who would score the effectiveness of Head Start teachers using an assessment tool developed at the University of Virginia.
Policy experts such as Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution and others have characterized the proposed changes as much-needed remedies that will attract new, more effective operators to Head Start.
Guernsey said the new regulations could encourage more school districts or even cities to apply to run the programs, many of which have been operated for years by non-profit, community action groups.
But Head Start officials in Kansas say they don’t see how the new rules will work here or in other predominantly rural states where populations are spread thin and competition is unlikely to emerge.
Some Kansas counties still lack any Head Start presence. And in many counties, Head Start is the only early childhood program available. Arbitrarily deciding that 25 percent of programs must "recompete" for funding, Kansas officials said, risks throwing out babies with the bath water.
Mary Baskett, executive director of the Kansas Head Start Association, said the planned new rules are overreaching. They go beyond the 2007 statute reauthorizing Head Start and the reform recommendations crafted by an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The 2007 law and the committee’s report have been cited as the building blocks of the new regulations.
"There’s a disconnect," Baskett said. "First of all, the legislation didn’t set any kind of a percentage and the committee made a projection, not even a firm recommendation (of the number of programs that might be poor performers). Then all of a sudden in the (proposed) rules it says there will be a minimum of 25 percent and we just believe that’s kind of arbitrary. We certainly do not believe in Kansas that 25 percent of our programs should need to re-compeat on performance issues."
Baskett said Kansas Head Start programs are evaluated every three years by teams from out of state. The quality of Kansas Head Start, she said, is excellent and nationally recognized.
"I think we’re just at the top," she said. "Our state and our region both get a lot of national recognition for the way we operate. Our directors and management teams and staff come together on a regular basis, always looking for innovation, ways to do things better. Many of our programs have gotten national awards. We’re not perfect, not anybody is. But I feel very confident in the quality of our overall program."
The association isn’t opposed to seeing poorly performing programs pushed out, she said, nor are Kansas programs fearful of competition. In fact, Baskett and others are doubtful any competition could be found.
No new applicants
And there is strong, recent evidence that there likely would not be competing organizations to step forward, if a Kansas Head Start program was forced by the new regulations to "recompete" for funding.
"We got (2009 federal stimulus) funds to expand our services," Baskett said, "and for Early Head Start, which almost doubled in size with the ARRA funding, those grants were open to competition. We did not get any applicants. There were no new organizations that applied for Early Head Start, so you kind of take from that we don’t have a list of people waiting in the wings to step into this."
Shannon Cotsoradis, executive director of Kansas Action for Children, a Topeka-based advocacy group, agreed that competition likely wouldn’t emerge in Kansas, despite the goal of federal regulators and reformers.
"One of our challenges in Kansas with Head Start and Early Head Start is finding providers," she said, "so, while the regulations might sound good in principle, I think there are probably some unique challenges facing Kansas and other rural states."
Federal officials from the Bush administration forward have wanted to see more Head Start programs managed or incorporated with public school districts to provide a "seamless" transition from pre-school to kindergarten and first grade.
But Baskett said almost half the Kansas programs already are run by school districts.
Head Start programs in Manhattan, Salina, Hutchinson, Junction City and elsewhere are operated by school districts, though the largest program by enrollment, in Wichita, is not. It is run by the non-profit Child Start Inc. which has about 1,100 children enrolled in its Head Start and Early Head Start programs.
Some of the state’s rural Head Start programs are far flung, spread over as many as 12 counties. Some have as few as 138 children enrolled.
According to the Kansas Head Start Association, the state’s 28 programs serve more than 11,000 children ages three through five in 86 counties. They employ 2,000 teachers and staff and have 17,000 volunteers, many of whom are parents of children enrolled in Head Start.
Baskett said the Kansas Head Start Association has been working with its members and the national Head Start association to prepare a response to the proposed regulations, which will be submitted in the next few weeks to federal officials. The hope, she said, is that Kansas concerns will be heard and the final regulations clarified or modified to deal with them.
"We all believe that programs that are not performing, that are not doing what they should be doing, should not be providing services," Baskett said, "That’s the underlying agreement. Everyone I know wants that. But there needs to be an equitable system for weeding them out."