Accountability Starts in Preschool

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President Obama’s recent announcement that the renewal of grants to Head Start agencies will no longer be automatic, but rather based on program performance, is likely to help boost the quality of services to the approximately 900,000 mostly low-income children currently enrolled in Head Start. According to the new regulations, Head Start grantees, for the first time in the program’s 46-year history, will be assessed against high performance standards.

In recognition of the need to boost program quality at some Head Start sites, the president announced that, through classroom visits and financial reviews, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will determine which Head Start programs need to reapply for their grant status, rather than simply receive an automatic renewal. Under the new rule, grantees that are meeting performance standards will not need to reapply and will receive an automatic renewal.

The expectation is that at least 25 percent of the 1,600 Head Start grantees will have to compete for funding against other vendors each funding cycle, depending on their performance against a list of specific criteria. Some of those will win back their status, but those who do not improve in such areas as school readiness, teacher qualifications, curriculum quality, physical plant, or financial stability will not be funded. Programs that have had their state or local licenses revoked, or that have misused their share of the $7 billion in overall federal funding, will remain subject to termination.

The accountability standards themselves are not new. They are rooted in the “Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007.” The new rule simply represents more rigorous enforcement of provisions already in place.

The renewal system for Head Start designation will be implemented within 12 months of the publication of the final rule, with continuous grants giving way to five-year grants under a three-year transition period. Although this could potentially lead to a disruption for Head Start clients, it is anticipated that other service providers in those same communities could step up to fill the void. 

“Head Start is a critical component of our education system because critical brain development occurs before the age of seven,” says Anda Adams, associate director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “A change in the accountability structure aimed at improving the quality of early childhood education is a welcome reform to ensure that children are well prepared for elementary school and beyond … including educational attainment and [their] work experience.” 

— Anneliese M. Bruner