Head Start Agencies Sue Over Obama's Recompetition Rules

Not long ago, Bob Ruseau, a stay-at-home dad who lives in Medford, Mass., ran into an old friend from the neighborhood who said she was surprised by how much his 5-year-old son had changed since she'd last seen him. "She remembered Matthew as a shy, withdrawn, little boy," Ruseau recently recalled, "and now he's totally different."

Ruseau was fairly sure he knew what accounted for the change. When Matthew was 3, he started going to Head Start, a federally funded early-childhood program that serves low-income families. About a year later, Matthew's little sister followed suit. Ruseau said they've both "blossomed" as a result of the experience.

But now the local center may lose its funding, and if that happens, Ruseau may decide to keep his daughter at home, rather than go through the trouble of sending her to a different center. "Honestly, we're not sure what we're going to do," he said.

Thousands of parents around the country may find themselves in a similar fix this year thanks to a controversial new Obama administration rule. To understand the rule and the anger over it, you have to go back to 2007, when Congress passed a law aimed at weeding out Head Start centers that weren't up to par. Named the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act, it ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to write regulations that would allow the department to determine whether each Head Start agency was meeting "the educational, health, nutritional, and social needs of the children and families it serves." It required the department to "integrate" the wisdom of a panel of experts into its decisions and directed that agencies that failed to meet the government's standards would have to "recompete" for renewal of their funding.

This past December, President Barack Obama stopped by a Head Start center in Pennsylvania to announce that his administration had finished drafting the regulations, which would throw about one-third of the programs into the recompetition pool. While he and others hailed the new system as an important step toward improving the program, others argued that it failed to reflect the intent or spirit of the 2007 legislation. The chorus of opposition has grown in recent months, and this week, a group of Head Start agencies from 10 states filed for an injunction, asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to throw out the regulations and force the Department of Health and Human Services to come up with new ones.

Edward Waters, a Washington lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said his clients have several objections to the new rules. "The biggest," he said, "is that the system doesn't do what Congress wanted it to do, which is measure the quality of the programs and decide who's high-quality and low-quality."

He pointed to a program in Ohio that gave workers hundred-dollar Walmart gift cards as an "end-of-the-year employee morale boost." That relatively minor transgression amounted to a violation of the old Head Start rules, so the government cited the program for a "deficiency," and the program eventually paid the government back. Now that Ohio program is up for recompetition, as are all other programs that received even a single deficiency citation in the last three years.

"What does this finding from three years before have to do with making a determination if you're doing a good job today or not?" Waters asked. "The answer is nothing."

Many of the plaintiffs insist that they're not at all opposed to regulations that would eliminate funding for truly bad programs.

"I would quite agree that there are Head Start programs across the country that should be closed," said Barbara Haxton, executive director of the Ohio Head Start Association. "But it’s become a contest of 'one strike and you're out,' and the cost of this, both in terms of actual businesses in communities and the cost to the Office of Head Start and the government, is outrageous." She estimated that shutting down a Head Start program could cost as much as a million dollars.

"This is by far the most drastic change we've ever experienced in the history of Head Start," Haxton added, noting that she's been in the field for more than 25 years.

Steve Barnett, an expert in early childhood education at Rutgers University, called the new system a "historic change." He did not consider it a change for the good. Referring to the new rules, he said, "They monitor you on a set of things the size of the Manhattan phone book. It's absurd."

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, the Health and Human Services division that oversees the Office of Head Start, said he couldn't comment on pending litigation. He pointed out that just because a program lands on the recompetition list doesn't mean it's ineligible for a grant. "If the organization proves itself able to serve children and families, then the organization could get funding," Wolfe said.

Critics of the system say it's unrealistic, however, to expect that a program that's been branded by the government as low-performing will have the same chance of receiving a grant as one without a track record. And they argue that if the government chooses to go with newcomers to the field, years of work that older centers have invested in building relationships with local families, organizations and businesses will go to waste.

Philip Bronder-Giroux is the director of the Tri-City Community Action Program in the Boston area, the program that Bob Ruseau credits with his son's transformation. In 2009, an inspector showed up at a classroom in a church and smelled gas. A pilot light had gone out in one of the kitchen stoves, so the teachers evacuated the kids and relit the stove. The organization quickly developed a plan that called for teachers to check the pilot lights every day, a more stringent safety measure than most private schools have.

"Federal officials determined that the issue had been resolved," said Bronder-Giroux. And yet this winter, Bronder-Giroux received a letter saying the program failed to meet the government's standards for quality. The stove incident was the only blemish on its record.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of the story reported that Bob Ruseau's daughter might lose out on "an opportunity" to go to Head Start next year. To be clear, if the center where she's currently enrolled loses its funding she'll have an opportunity to attend a Head Start program at a different center in the community. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services may replace specific organizations deemed low-performing with higher-scoring groups, it has no plans to cut the overall number of slots for children, says Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesperson for the department.