Karen E. LynchSpecialist in Social Policy
Head Start is a federal program that has provided comprehensive early childhood development services (e.g., education, health, nutrition, and social services) to low-income children and their families since 1965. These services are intended to promote the school readiness of children by enhancing their cognitive, social, and emotional development. At the federal level, Head Start is administered by the Office of Head Start within the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Federal Head Start funds are provided directly to local public and private nonprofit and for-profit agencies (called “grantees”), rather than through states. At this time, programs are administered by roughly 1,600 grantees.
Since the program’s inception, Head Start grantees have generally been given grant awards for indefinite periods (i.e., awards with no end date). However, the 2007 Head Start reauthorization law (P.L. 110-134) changed this by instituting a five-year designation period for Head Start grantees. Under this law, at the end of its five-year designation period, a grantee must demonstrate that it is delivering high-quality and comprehensive services, or else the grant is to be opened for re-competition. The law refers to the process of identifying grantees for re- competition as the Designation Renewal System (DRS). The law tasked HHS with establishing the DRS in consultation with a panel of experts and based on parameters specified in the law.
In January 2008, HHS convened an Advisory Committee on Re-designation of Head Start Grantees. Twelve months later, the advisory committee released a report with formal recommendations for implementing the DRS. In September 2010, HHS published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the DRS based, in part, on the advisory committee’s recommendations. HHS received approximately 16,000 comments on the proposed rule from Head Start grantees, parents, teachers, state associations, national organizations, academic institutions, and legal entities. HHS took all comments into consideration before publishing a final rule on the DRS in November 2011.
The DRS final rule established seven indicators for identifying Head Start grantees that are not providing “high-quality and comprehensive services.” The indicators address various aspects of program quality, licensing and operations, and fiscal and internal controls. Any grantee that fails to meet the minimum quality standards set by one or more of the seven indicators will automatically be required to compete for continued funding.
Under the terms of the final rule, the DRS became effective on December 9, 2011. That month, HHS announced the first cohort of grantees required to re-compete. A second cohort of grantees designated for re-competition was announced in January 2013. DRS competitions began in 2012. As of July 2013, HHS had awarded roughly 153 grants through DRS competitions.
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