A Head Start -- And Keeping It That Way

12/10/2010 03:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Any business owner can tell you that if their company isn't performing profitably and up to standards, one of two things will happen: either you make changes to improve its efficiency or a competitor will drive you out of business. Market forces have a way of cutting to the chase rather quickly.

Government doesn't usually operate that way, but it ought to. Recently, the federal government evaluated its Head Start early learning program and found many of its providers were not up to standards. In one of the biggest changes to Head Start in its 45-year history, the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would force existing low-performing Head Start programs to compete for their federal funding against other interested entities in the community. At least a quarter of the program's grantees being evaluated in any given year, those falling below a performance threshold, would be forced to raise their standards or else a competitor would force them out of business. Those are market forces at work. As an entrepreneur and a fierce advocate for quality early childhood education, I strongly support this ambitious plan and the accountability that it demands. Our children deserve it, and our country depends on it.

Head Start has been a key component of health, nutrition and early learning opportunities since the 1960's. From its origins as part of the War on Poverty to its initial funding of Sesame Street, through 4 Democratic and 5 Republican Presidential administrations, Head Start has endured and served, helping an astounding 22 million children and their families. For years, peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated that Head Start students are less likely to repeat grades and more likely to graduate from high school, go to college and obtain jobs. Simply put, it is a cornerstone of early childhood development in at-risk communities.

Making subpar Head Start providers "recompete" for funding would force the program to be even more effective. Currently, approximately 1,600 grantees run Head Start programs across the country, and the federal government evaluates them on a rotating basis. Under the proposed arrangement, the stakes of evaluation would escalate. The plan would force the lowest-performing 25% of those being scrutinized in any given year - using assessment factors like program quality, financial management and operational efficiency - to raise their quality or go out of business. And if terminated, the grantee would be barred from competing for funding for the next five years.

This tougher approach comes at the right time. The 2007 Head Start Reauthorization bill began a process of methodical program appraisal. So, too, did the recently completed Head Start Impact Study, mandated by Congress more than a decade ago. Though that study reiterated Head Start's effectiveness in preparing students for kindergarten, it also concluded that a number of Head Start students largely lost literacy and language gains by the end of first grade. Though it's quite likely that these findings underscore the need for stronger integration between Head Start and elementary schools, there's also no reason not to demand even higher quality from Head Start itself. There is no substitute for excellence.

Fortunately, that's exactly the view of the Department of Health and Human Services, which rejected an advisory's group recommendation of a 15-20% recompete, instead opting for the even more demanding 25% program. It's also the perspective of a series of Head Start providers and advocates. They yearn to weed out underperformers because -- in the words of one supporter -- "just 'good' isn't good enough."

That is a fundamentally American approach, and it will benefit every child who uses Head Start. Moreover, that driven, competitive attitude will resonate with prospective private partners for early childhood education. Having seen such partnerships flourish in connection with Educare, I believe that they are crucial -- and that the precondition for them is the credibility, particularly within the business community, of the early childhood mission.

It is a mission that has never been more important, and that has never required more from those who answer its call. With these more rigorous Head Start rules in place, that call will be answered, as it should be, with excellence.