04/25/2012 04:29 pm ET

Head Start Agencies Slam Obama Administration

For decades, Head Start programs around the country didn't have to worry about getting their funding renewed. It was rare that a center lost its government money.

Five years ago, Congress passed a law aimed at weeding out low-performing Head Start centers by allowing the federal government to put their grants up for competition. Last week, the Obama administration announced that the first round of competition had begun.

Yet the new law leaves an important question unanswered: How do you determine which centers are "low-performing?"

A group of providers for Head Start, the national network of federally funded child-development programs, has filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration, arguing that the government never answered that question, that it wants "competition for competition's sake" and that it doesn't care if good centers are lost as a result.

Edward Waters, the plaintiffs' attorney, recently obtained a document from the administration that may prove central to this case.

A September 2011 memo to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, proposes a method for identifying poorly performing Head Start programs. The memo notes that an earlier proposed method received thousands of responses from the public and that "nearly all of the comments were negative."

The root of the anger, according to Acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families George Sheldon who wrote the memo, was a provision saying that at least a quarter of the programs would have to compete for their grants. Critics argued that if the government was obliged to meet that rigid quota, it would likely end up throwing perfectly good programs into the deep end.

The revised proposal called for the government to rate programs using something called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). Sheldon wrote that this would "meet the goal that a minimum of 25% of programs compete for renewed funding each year."

But that's precisely the problem, said Waters. If officials truly cared about making sure that only high-performing programs survived, they would have done away with that goal altogether. Instead, they just came up with a stealthier way to achieve it, he said.

CLASS, as the memo notes, is an evaluation system linked to "positive child development and later achievement." Observers are trained to grade classroom quality in three areas: instructional support, emotional support and classroom organization.

Steve Barnett, an expert in early childhood education at Rutgers, said that the system is "as good as anything we have ... but not great." According to Barnett, data shows that if a school makes big improvements on the CLASS scale, it's "moderately" likely to see improved test grades for children. He would have preferred the government to test the children directly, but that's expensive.

The federal government is the biggest contributor to Head Start programs; without federal money, the programs would close. Getting a relatively low grade on the CLASS test is just one way a program can lose its funding. Programs automatically end up on the competition list if a review of their records shows they've received a citation for a "deficiency" in the last two years, for example. It doesn't matter what the problem is or whether the program has corrected it.

One program in western Massachusetts landed on the list because in 2010 an inspector noticed some paint chips on the floor and a crack in one of the tiles. The tile was quickly replaced and the paint chips swept away, yet the center may now have to compete for funding with organizations that are new and have no blemishes on their record (or more precisely, no record at all).

Jennifer Allen, a mother of a students who goes to the center, said she had no complaints about the program and isn't sure what she'll do if the government gives the grant to another provider. "My 3-year-old, he built bonds with all these teachers and friends," she said. "If we had to find a new program it would be really discouraging."

Marrianne McMullen, a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families, said, "We want to make sure that federal funds go to the organization in the community that's most capable of providing a high-quality early-education program. That's what this is all about."

Ron Herndon, the director of a large Head Start program in Portland, Ore., is among the doubters. "They took that 25 percent out, but they’ve done it in a backdoor fashion," he said.

Head Start serves 1 million 3- and 4-year-old children and their families, and research shows that Head Start kids are less likely to drop out of high school than their peers. One reason might be that some students come from chaotic homes and the program provides them with a measure of stability. But if the new system remains in place, it would mean that some families in high-quality programs may have to find new centers and teachers for their kids, undermining that stability, critics say.

Barnett believes that the government should encourage the programs to invest more in improving the quality of teaching by letting them off the hook for minor infractions, like the odd cracked tile or paint chip.

"It should only require them to do the things that are essential for the well-being and development of the kids," he said.