On June 4th, NHSA hosted the first of six webinars in the Summer Reauthorization Webinar Series. The goal of these webinars is to dig deeper into some of the tough questions facing Head Start where there are clear challenges, but no clear solutions. The first webinar focused on Head Start’s role in state early learning systems and how the two can be better aligned. We were thrilled to hear from a diverse group of programs and State/Regional Association leadership. Thank you to all 171 programs - representing 45 states - who filled out our post-webinar survey, which was a great help in getting further information about how programs interact with state systems. Comments and answers from that survey are included throughout this post.
Since its inception, Head Start has been caught in the middle of a centuries-old debate on federalism – the role of the federal government versus that of the states. Head Start was created as a federal-to-local program in 1965 primarily as a way to circumvent inappropriate uses of funds by pro-segregation state governments. Today, that specific concern has of course been muted, but the importance of the federal-to-local model has evolved and cannot be understated. This model allows Head Start programs from Anchorage to Des Moines to Miami to look different, depending on their communities’ unique set of needs, while simultaneously ensuring that they are all meeting the same high standard of quality. It is clear and the whole Head Start community agrees that this federal-to-local model must remain intact in the next Head Start Reauthorization.
What is not clear, however, is how Head Start programs should engage, partner, and collaborate with their states – especially as states continue to invest in their own early learning systems. As we heard on the webinar, though many Head Start programs already interact substantially with their states systems, primarily through licensing, most programs also discuss the need for more coordination.
One primary area that needs coordination is in monitoring. Programs expressed that there was significant overlap in various monitoring systems, either through child care, state pre-k, or existing federal monitoring – causing duplication, extra work, and avoidable frustration. Specifically, the two main areas where the programs saw a significant overlap between state and federal efforts was in the monitoring of health and safety systems and the physical classroom environment.
Programs expressed in the webinar that they are overwhelmed with the amount of people conducting monitoring visits as well as the time it takes to prepare for these visits takes time away from providing other services. Many agreed that states should play a leading role in the monitoring of health and safety and classroom environment, but they also believe that states should not take over monitoring entirely, due to fears that it would become unfair and too variable across states.
The webinar discussion also took into consideration the roles of the Head Start State Collaboration Office and the Early Learning Advisory Councils. While some states have very strong State Collaboration Offices, others felt that their Collaboration Office was more isolated and therefore less instrumental in coordinating programs and systems. Nearly all programs thought the purpose of the Collaboration Office should be to share information, represent Head Start at state meetings, and influence state policy. Additionally, many programs thought Collaboration Directors should help grantees align eligibility, standards, and monitoring requirements among early learning programs in the state.
As with the Collaboration Office, some programs had the perception that their State’s Early Learning Advisory Council (ELAC) was very effective, while others did not believe that they effectively represented Head Start. Many expressed concern that the effectiveness of the ELAC depended on who was at the table, and that members of the Head Start community need to be more prominent in these councils.
Although the webinar discussion barely scraped the surface of all that could be discussed regarding Head Start’s role in state systems, it provided a valuable opportunity for members of the Head Start community to discuss how they would like to see Head Start’s role change and develop. We look forward to continuing these discussions, and stay tuned for more posts about our Summer Reauthorization Webinar Series!