Proposals to block grant Head Start are much like Lamar Alexander’s long-running “Pell Grants for Kids” proposal—a perennial conservative education policy idea that can be used year after year because it never goes anywhere politically. The idea of giving states a greater role in Head Start is not without merit—after all, states are responsible for K-12 education and have significantly ramped up their role in early childhood education over the past 20 years. But block granting is only one—highly simplistic—approach to doing this—and one that’s nowhere near as simple as it sounds. Here are a few key questions that any policymaker who supports block granting Head Start should carefully think through—and that journalists should ask any legislator offering a proposal to shift Head Start to the states.
- Why? This may sound like a flippant question, but it’s not. There are a variety of reasons one might want to give states a greater role in running Head Start. For example, one possible reason to increase the state role in Head Start might be to enhance collaboration and coordination between state-administered childcare and preschool programs and Head Start, or between Head Start and the K-12 education system, which is the responsibility of states. Another reason might be to allow states to combine funds from Head Start, childcare, state preschool, and other early childhood funding streams to create a more integrated system, improve quality, or serve more children. Another reason might be a belief that 1,400 Head Start grantees are too many for the federal government to oversee, and that shifting responsibility to the states would lead to better oversight of Head Start. Yet each of these potential reasons for shifting more responsibility for Head Start to the states has its own, distinct policy implications—some of which are in conflict. And it would be possible to design a Head Start block grant policy that would address none of these issues. So, if someone wants to block grant Head Start, they need to be able to first explain what they hope to accomplish by doing so.
- How would you ensure that states use Head Start funds to improve early learning rather than supplant existing funds? Perhaps the greatest objection to block granting Head Start is the concern that states, given control of Head Start funds, would use them to reduce their own investments in early learning rather than better serving kids. Given many states’ track records of under-investing in early childhood education, and of cutting early childhood funds dramatically whenever fiscal times get tough—as happened in many states during the most recent recession—this concern seems well-founded. There are ways to design federal policies to reduce the risk that states would use Head Start funds to reduce, rather than supplement, their own resources, but designing effective policies here is challenging. Any one proposing to block grant Head Start needs to outline a clear policy to prevent states from using federal Head Start funds to reduce their own.
- What kind of flexibility would states have to set their own performance standards? Head Start is a famously bureaucratic program: the Head Start Performance Standards include some 2,400 distinct requirements grantees must meet. Reducing these burdensome requirements should be a policy goal. But that doesn’t mean that states should be left entirely to their own devices to set Head Start standards—many states have set standard for preschool teacher credentials and other key quality factors that are lower than those in Head Start, and research suggests that the average quality in state-funded pre-k is somewhat lower than the typical Head Start classroom. Policymakers who propose transitioning Head Start to states need to be clear about what elements of the program standards states will need to maintain, and where they will have flexibility. In addition, states should be prevented from imposing their own sets of burdensome additional requirements on Head Start grantees.
- What about comprehensive services? In addition to quality standards for early learning, the performance standards also include requirements for Head Start grantees to offer services—such as health, nutrition, and family supports—that address the comprehensive needs of poor families. Typical state pre-k programs do not provide all these services. Would state-administered Head Start programs still be required to ensure Head Start-eligible children received these comprehensive services? Would states simply be accountable to ensure that children received comprehensive services through existing state health, mental health, nutrition and other programs (but not necessarily through their preschool program)? Or would comprehensive services cease to be part of Head Start?
- How would the federal government hold states accountable? If the federal government were to transfer Head Start to the states, it would need a mechanism to monitor how effectively states were administering Head Start funds and to hold them accountable for how they served young children. Head Start has an existing monitoring system, but that system is designed for grantees, not entire states. Two factors would make federal monitoring of state use of Head Start funds particularly challenging: First, one of the major reasons to provide states greater control of Head Start funds would be to enable them to combine these funds with other state funding streams to serve more kids, lengthen the day, or improve quality. But states were to combine funds in this way, it would create a question about who the feds should hold states accountable for: just children served with Head Start funds? Just Head Start eligible children? All children served with state or federal early childhood funds? The overall quality of early learning in the state? Second, measuring outcomes in early childhood education is more challenging in K-12 education, which would make accountability more challenging, and potentially require the use of other, harder to assess, measures such as classroom instructional or environmental quality.
- How would the transition work? Block granting Head Start would create an enormous logistical challenge. Head Start isn’t simply a program or a funding stream: it’s a network and system of providers and centers. Block granting Head Start would require terminating the contracts of existing grantees, transferring their funds and other real assets (such as buildings and buses, which in many cases were purchased with federal funds and may be federal property) to the state, reallocating those funds and assets from the state to providers, and maintaining services for eligible children over the course of this transition. Currently, this process happens in microcosm whenever a current Head Start grantee is terminated or loses its grant to another organization in designation renewal—and it’s hugely complicated and painful for the providers, educators, and families involved. Now multiply that times 1,400. Explain how you’d do it.
- Who would be the providers in state-administered programs? The really crazy thing about the transition process outlined above is that, in many cases, existing Head Start grantees would continue to be the providers serving children in a state administered program. Many current state pre-k programs rely on existing Head Start grantees as pre-k providers, and this would continue to be the case if states gained control of Head Start funds. Even if states wanted to engage new providers, the supply of high-quality early childhood providers is limited, and other providers might not exist in many places. Ultimately, the quality of early learning services children receive is far more depend on the quality of the provider than whether it’s under state or federal oversight, so the onus is on block grant proponents to explain what change would occur at the provider level as a result of their proposals—and, if it’s not much, why such massive disruption is necessary at all?
- How will we learn from inter-state variations? One of the major arguments for decentralizing social services to the states is the opportunity for the states to serve as “laboratories of innovation,” who, by taking a variety of approaches, enable the field as a whole to learn what works, what doesn’t and to replicate different practices. If Washington were to delegate control of Head Start to states, and give them greater flexibility in how they run the program, how would federal policymakers ensure that we capture the lessons of states’ varied experience in order to identify effective and ineffective approaches, replicate what works, stop doing what doesn’t, and improve overall knowledge and quality?
- Which states do you expect will do the best job? Proponents of block granting Head Start should be able to offer at least one example of a state that they believe would use greater control of Head Start funds well, and to explain what that state would do/change if it had control of Head Start funds, and how those changes would result in better early learning outcomes for more kids. If they can’t offer an example, why should anyone believe this is a good idea?
- What do you think is the appropriate federal role in early childhood education generally? Currently, the federal government provides about 10% of funding for K-12 education, but a much larger percentage of public funding for early childhood (as well as postsecondary) education, due to federal funding for Head Start, as well as the fact that the federal government provides the majority of funding for state childcare subsidies. Ultimately, any case for block granting Head Start should be part of a larger, coherent narrative about the appropriate federal, state, local, nonprofit sector, and family roles in early learning, and how/why those roles should be different from or similar to the roles in K-12 and postsecondary education.
As my recent paper on Head Start argues, there are good reasons to think about increasing the state role in Head Start, but block granting Head Start is not the only—and probably not the best—way to do that. Unfortunately, the specter of poorly thought through calls to block grant Head Start has made it difficult to have any kind of thoughtful conversation about how federal policies might more productively and effectively engage states in Head Start.