Head Start Cheers Final Rule Improving Quality Evaluation Standards for Programs

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Seven years of advocacy by the Head Start community for the removal of arbitrary and ineffective policies has culminated in a significant regulatory change to the Designation Renewal System (DRS) from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).

In a final rule, ACF made three changes to the conditions used to determine whether local Head Start grantees have to compete for continued funding. These changes will not only provide a consistent, stable target for Head Start programs to work toward, they will also encourage programs to approach this work through a quality improvement framework, ensuring the highest level of quality for children in Head Start.

“By using our powerful, unified voice, the Head Start community has compelled much-needed changes to policies governing local programs,” NHSA Executive Director Yasmina Vinci said. “Rather than relying on an arbitrary trigger that supports a quota of programs entering into competition each year, these new changes to the DRS make quality services for children and quality improvement of programs the paramount focus of federal regulators. We rejoice in long-awaited progress and pause to recognize just how strong the Head Start community is when we stand together to advocate for our needs.

“Today’s announcement is the result of more than seven years of pressure from thousands of Head Start and early childhood advocates across the country, and it is proof that successful change of policy is possible. Head Start has long been a trailblazer in early childhood education quality, and NHSA applauds the administration for working cooperatively with our community to strengthen Head Start’s effectiveness in supporting children and families in reaching their full potential in school and life.”

The final rule, which will be effective 60 days after its publication, refines how the Office of Head Start uses deficiencies, Classroom Assessment Scoring System: Pre-K (CLASS) scores, and audit findings for grant funding determinations. Specifically, the new rule will:

  1. Remove the flawed CLASS 10% trigger. In exchange, the rule establishes two sets of thresholds: Quality Thresholds and Competitive Thresholds. Quality Thresholds will initiate training and technical assistance from the Office of Head Start to increase classroom quality. Competitive Thresholds will cause grantees to compete for continued funding at the end of their grant period. These changes to the use of CLASS in DRS will not only provide a consistent, stable target for programs to work toward, they will also encourage local programs to approach this work through a quality improvement framework, ensuring the highest level of quality for children in Head Start.
  2. Increase the number of deficiencies that trigger competition to two, rather than just one. This firmly aligns with Head Start’s focus on quality improvement and using deficiencies to identify systemic issues, rather than just singular missteps.
  3. Expand the fiscal integrity measures. With regard to the fiscal condition, two identical audit findings that are material weakness or questioned cost will trigger competitions, and a “going concern” finding at any time triggers competition. This method increases the focus on the financial health of Head Start grantees to ensure more holistically that Head Start children are served by strong, reliable organizations.

“Head Start has long been a model of effective accountability, high-quality services, and localized, targeted service delivery,” Vinci added. “The DRS—the Head Start grant competition process—as a whole, has helped grantees raise quality and has rightly held grantees responsible for the federal investment. The modifications made by this new rule will remove elements of the DRS that were highly stressful and wasteful for programs and took away from their ability to focus on services to children and families, while doing little to accomplish Congress’ intent of creating a system to identify and improve low-performing programs.

“Today’s announcement is a victory for all who are committed to improving Head Start’s ability to support America’s most vulnerable children and families, and we salute the administration for listening and responding to our united voice.”

About NHSA

The National Head Start Association is committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in school and in life. The opportunities offered by Head Start lead to healthier, empowered children and families, and stronger, more vibrant communities. NHSA is the voice for more than 840,000 children and families from systemically underserved populations, 250,000 staff, and 1,600 Head Start grant recipients. ••• Media Contact: Emily Wagner, Director of Communications, media@nhsa.org

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