The Accountability Revolution Comes to Head Start

By Sophie Quinton

St. Jerome’s Head Start, a plain building in a gentrifying Baltimore neighborhood, looks as solid and unchanging as a block of concrete. It’s an unlikely setting for a big shift in how early-childhood education is provided. But here and across the city, Head Start teachers are grappling with new rules for educating children. Staffers are under pressure to make sure program finances are airtight. And centers are waiting to hear the final details of a plan to change the way early-childhood services are delivered citywide.

Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for low-income children, has experienced more change in the past three years than in the previous 40. After years of debate about the program’s quality and value, there’s an accountability revolution coming to preschool.

Operating under authority from a 2007 law signed by George W. Bush, the Obama administration has started requiring Head Start providers that perform poorly on federal audits to compete against other local providers—and win—to keep their grants for the next five years. If all goes according to plan, by the end of 2014 the federal government will have reviewed every Head Start program under new performance criteria. So far, more than 350 of some 1,700 Head Start grant recipients have been forced to compete for their funding, and many more will be required to do so in the years ahead.

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