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Head Start vs. Obama Administration, Round One

[Guest Post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]

Yesterday, the Huffington Post reported that a collection of Head Start agencies from ten different states have sued the Obama Administration, claiming a set of new regulations has unfairly jeopardized their federal funding. Roughly speaking, they're filing a lawsuit against their boss.

As I wrote last week, the new rules state that Head Start providers that fail to meet certain criteria will have to compete for funding against other applicants. If a program currently receiving HS funds loses in the re-competition, its grant is revoked, and given to a better applicant. Competition is good, and in theory, so is this reform: Until this year, funding for the Great Society low-income preschool program had been automatic. If you got it one year, you pretty much got it the next. 

These particular agencies are suing merely because they are being forced to re-compete—we won’t know whether they win or lose until later this year. But this lawsuit isn’t just sour grapes. As both my piece and the HuffPo note, programs are being re-competed for “deficiencies” that have little to do with Head Start’s most important functions: academics, children’s health, and family services. As HuffPo pointed out, one program was cited for a “deficiency” for giving its workers an end-of-year “morale boost” Walmart gift card.

Given how little Head Start teachers make, compared even to kindergarten teachers, this particular ding seems a bit unfair. 

Still, it’s important to note two caveats to my argument and the one the HuffPo makes. First, as EdWeek blogger Sara Mead noted in her response to my piece, having to compete for funding is by no means the same as having funding taken away. 

The HuffPost piece also perpetuates another misconception: that some Head Start parents—who can’t afford private pre-school—would have nowhere to send their kids. From HuffPo:

But now the local center may lose its funding, and if that happens, Ruseau's daughter may miss out on the opportunity to go to Head Start for a second year. "Honestly, we're not sure what we're going to do," [Ruseau] said. "She'll be with me, I guess."

This particular dad’s fears are unjustified. The Office of Head Start (OHS) stipulates that re-competition winners must accommodate the same number of students and cover the same geographic area as programs that lose out. And if new providers aren’t ready to take over right away, OHS will install an interim provider. No child eligible for Head Start will be denied it, in other words.

In sum, the new regulations are flawed, but not disastrous. The lawsuit asks the Obama administration to throw out its guidelines for re-competition and create new ones. This seems extreme. But so is the weight the Administration has put on minor infractions: As the Office of Head Start contemplates these cases, it should ensure that Head Start providers—many of which have been providing valuable services to poor families for a long time—are not put out of commission for isolated, largely harmless, bloopers.