Head Start Regulations Aim to Reduce Rules by 30%

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Head Start bus HAFA FARM / Media Mike Hazard

September 1, 2016; U.S. News & World Report

With just a few months left to make their mark on early childhood education policy, the Obama administration announced new rules on Head Start this week that require a comprehensive overhaul to the program. The final rule by the Administration for Children & Families in the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) outlines extensive evidence-based reforms to the Head Start program.

“[HHS] is unveiling some of the most significant improvements we’ve ever made to Head Start,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, who herself attended the early childhood education program as a child in West Virginia. “The new standards strengthen educational practices and are based on the best research about how children learn and develop.”

The rule is based on information from the HHS Secretary’s Advisory Committee Final Report on Head Start Research and Evaluation. The changes also coincide with recent evidence from longitudinal studies and other research that contradicts studies that found no long-term effects. New studies have found lasting effects not only for Head Start students, but also for their parents and eventually their children.

There were many changes included in the ruling—you can read all 161 pages of the final rule here—but two stand out as particularly important for nonprofits. The first is an overhaul of the grantee process with the hope of reducing duplicative reporting, regulations, and standards that programs face. This is certainly welcome news for nonprofits that operate Head Start centers. Blanca Enriquez, director of the Office of Head Start, said, “The new standards for the program will reduce the current 1,400 Head Start standards by approximately 30 percent, eliminating many prescriptive and duplicative requirements while improving services to children and families in Head Start.”

The second big change is the move to phase in full-day programs that run the entire school year. This is a significant change that requires a substantial boost in funding to avoid the loss of teaching jobs and slots for children. (As a baseline, excluding federal administrative costs, in FY 2014 Head Start spent about $8.5 billion to serve 927,000 children.) Nonprofits will need to closely watch how the allocations process unfolds over the next few years to support this significant increase in operational costs.

While the emphasis in all this has been placed on changes in the educational element of the program, that’s not all there is to Head Start. As a War on Poverty program, its original charge was to empower families, directed in large part by parents. This, of course, requires some latitude. In Harris County, Texas, Department of Education Head Start Senior Director Venetia L. Peacock comments, “The new standards appear to be focused on reducing bureaucracy and streamlining efficiency, both of which are critical to the effective delivery of Head Start services.”

But, she adds, “At HCDE Head Start, we are particularly pleased that parent and family engagement and local flexibility remain priorities, which will allow us to continue addressing the unique needs of the diverse communities we serve.”

NPQ would love to hear from Head Start leaders and advocates on the new regulations.—Lauren Miltenberger