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The Obama administration is calling for major changes in Head Start, the 46-year-old early childhood education program that helped launch President Johnson's War on Poverty.
President Obama says too many children today aren't learning, and too many education programs are mismanaged.
"We're not just going to put money into programs that don't work," the president announced late last year. "We will take money and put it into programs that do."
To that end, the administration has released a list of 132 Head Start programs in 40 states it has rated "deficient." Those programs will now have to compete for federal funding.
Grappling With The "Deficient" Label
Perhaps no one was more surprised to see their program on the list than the people who run Head Start in New Haven, Conn.
Kathy Harvey runs the Zigler Head Start Center there. When she heard that New Haven's Board of Education could lose its $6.2 million federal grant to run the city's Head Start program, she says, "it freaked me out. But it only freaked me out for about five minutes."
The Zigler Center is a welcoming, brightly lit building plastered with kids' drawings. Harvey usually loves showing them off, but she says it's hard putting on a happy face after being labeled "deficient."
Harvey says she feels beleaguered. But she doesn't let parents see it, or let it prevent her from meeting the daily needs of Zigler students.
Four-year-old Anthony Herbet is one of those children. He has asthma and needs school staff to help him use an inhaler on wheezy days.
Harvey says children like Anthony are why Head Start is more important than ever. With 4 in 10 children in New Haven living in poverty, the demand for what Head Start provides — medical care, eye and dental exams, three meals a day, academic instruction and training for parents — is growing.
"The Obama administration may not agree, but we do good work here," Harvey says. "Obama wants all Head Start centers in the country to go up for re-competition, or whatever it is? ... Bring it on."
The Zigler Center may be up for the challenge, but New Haven's Head Start programs have grappled with challenges of their own. The last time inspectors from Washington came to New Haven, they found that the local Board of Education had hired at least 10 people to work for Head Start between 1980 and 2001 without conducting criminal background checks.
Inspectors also found a half-million dollars' worth of billing and financial errors.
Tina Mannarino, supervisor of early childhood education in New Haven, says those problems have since been corrected. "We're in full compliance now," she says.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirms that New Haven is now in compliance. But Yvette Sanchez-Fuentes, director of the Office of Head Start in Washington, says that doesn't mean the city is off the list of programs with a history of deficiencies.
"We determined that they'll have to compete to continue to receive their Head Start funding," Sanchez- Fuentes says.
Mannarino is disappointed with the decision but accepts it. "Although we feel it's unfair, we do embrace [competition] as an opportunity to improve quality and effectiveness," she says.
'Time For New Thinking'
But when it comes to increased scrutiny of Head Start, some critics say it's about time.
David Muhlhausen, a research fellow with the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, says "it's time for new thinking" when it comes to early childhood education.
"To the Obama administration's credit, if the proposed reforms are actually carried out, then I think it would raise the accountability of Head Start," Muhlhausen says.
Muhlhausen says the $8 billion program is currently riddled with problems, including financial fraud, shoddy record-keeping and doctored documents that have allowed ineligible families to enroll.
Besides, says Muhlhausen, studies show that many children don't benefit academically from Head Start. He feels it may be time to turn the whole endeavor over to the states.
"We're wasting a lot of money on this program," Muhlhausen says. "It's a shame, but if we devolve the responsibility back to the states, and let states try a diversity of ideas, we'll find better approaches and [kids will do better] in the long run."
And if the states can't do it, Muhlhausen feels that other groups, including for-profit organizations, should get a shot. "Because for the administration's plan to work," he says, "there has to be competition. And that means there have to be alternative providers."
But other education experts say that's easier said than done. Edward Zigler, professor emeritus at Yale University, helped design Head Start in the mid-1960s. He's considered by some to be the "father of Head Start."
"Who's waiting in the wings to take over that program? Nobody's talking about that," Zigler says. "I don't know where these people get that in their heads."
Zigler says inadequate funding has hurt the quality of the Head Start program more than anything else. "It's always a matter of money. It's been a matter of money for 46 years."
With enough money, Zigler says, you can hire good teachers and competent administrators, and pay for top-notch health services and facilities.
Zigler is hoping the federal scrutiny will reassure lawmakers in Washington and result in more funding for Head Start.
But back in New Haven, the scrutiny has aroused indignation. Dr. Michelle Bogart runs the Lincoln-Bassett Head Start Center for disabled children in one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods.
"You come here and tell me what else we can do," Bogart says of the Head Start competition. "We do 24 hours' worth of work and love and support and compassion and education in 6 1/2 hours. What else can we do?"
New Haven will find out in the fall whether it will keep its Head Start grant. But already, community organizations in Massachusetts and Ohio are threatening to sue if the Obama administration goes forward with its plans to pull funding from programs it considers deficient.
Correction: April 3, 2012 12:00 am — An earlier version of this story, as well as the original audio version, said 4 in 10 children in Connecticut are living in poverty. Actually, that's the child poverty rate in New Haven; statewide, it's about 13 percent.