Friday, November 14, 2014

The Head Start Survival Guide: Practical Tips for Making It in a Republican-Controlled Congress

Last week the US Senate was flipped from Democratic to Republican control.  This means that in January 2015 Head Start will be facing a more difficult environment in Congress than we have experienced the past few years. Here are some things you need to know to prepare for the new Congress and what it will take for us to survive:

Seek Bipartisan Support For Early Learning. 

In many states, including Washington, Republican leaders have partnered with Democrats to make new investments in high quality early education. Several “red states” like Oklahoma, Georgia, and North Carolina have made major commitments to early learning. This has not been true in DC since Obama was elected in 2008. There is always an occasional outlier that steps forward but these are usually very moderate Republican members and they tend to not be on key committees or in leadership positions.  Just to put things in perspective, however, there are 435 members of Congress and 100 US Senators but there were only 3 House Republicans listed as Co-Sponsors on the Strong Start for America Act and there were no Republican Senators. Given this environment, it will take strong advocacy and outreach from the Head Start community to develop the kind of powerful conservative champions for Early Learning that we have in state governments.  

Reach Out To New Committee Chairs In The Senate.   

The House Education and Workforce Committee will continue to be led by Rep. John Kline (R-MN) and the House Appropriations Committee will continue to be led by Rep. Harold Rodgers (R-KY). Both of these guys have shown some support towards Head Start, with Rep. Rodgers seemingly in our corner when it comes to funding. But the Senate will now be a much different environment. Already we know the likely chairs of four of the most important Committees that impact Head Start directly:

  • Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) will chair the HELP Committee. Typically, he has been seen as a pragmatist and has shown some support for Head Start. During the last Head Start reauthorization in 2007 he authored the Centers of Excellence.  This year he has called for Congress to fund the Centers of Excellence initiative. This seems like something we can get behind and should advocate for. Recently, however, he has not been particularly friendly toward the program and has proposed block granting Head Start to state governments.  

  • Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) will take the reins of the Senate Budget Committee previously held by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).  Senator Sessions has frequently criticized Head Start and says he plans to introduce a budget blueprint that will lower the amount of funding available to programs that serve low income children and families.  He has been a supporter of sequester and publicly opposed the two year budget peace agreement between Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Murray (D-WA). Remember, next fall the sequestration kicks in again for fiscal year 2016. This is a huge problem and it is made considerably worse if the new Senate budget committee chair thinks it is a good thing.  
  • Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) will take over the full Appropriations Committee. He has been somewhat sympathetic to Head Start in the past and relied on Democratic support to get elected. Our hope is that he will be an advocate for Head Start.
  • Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) will likely take over the Senate Labor HHS appropriations subcommittee. This has not been confirmed but this is tough loss as he will replace one of Head Start’s greatest champions, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). So far Senator Moran has been supportive of finding common ground. For example, he voted for the omnibus bill that ended the government shutdown. 

Prepare Our Own Forward-Thinking Proposal. 

It isn’t likely that we will see any Head Start Reauthorization bills moving out of the policy committees over the next two years. For one thing, Senator Alexander seems interested in focusing on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher
Education Act before getting to Head Start. Rep. Kline also seems to have priorities other than early learning. I think there is a sense that members of Congress want to see how the Designation Renewal System (DRS) plays out and what the new program performance standards will look like before launching into a new Head Start reauthorization. I wouldn’t be completely surprised, however, if some conversations start taking place about the future of Head Start.  It will be incumbent on all of us to put forward a proactive and positive agenda. As you probably know, NHSA is in the process of gathering input from the field and talking with folks inside and outside the beltway about charting a course for Head Start.  We need to continue to support this work.

Turn the Page on Old Battles, Heated Discussions and Fears

Still not happy with the DRS process? Concerned about how the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships might work? Worried about the Obama Administration’s pre-k agenda? All of that needs to be a thing of the past. Yes, we absolutely have to speak up when we have real issues with the Obama Administration or our champions on the Hill. Holding the Obama Administration accountable is important, but we also need to recognize that the situation is different now. Come January 2015 we are not having a discussion about how the Early Head Start-Child Care partnership might work, but if there will actually be any money at all for Early Head Start or child care.  We are not discussing whether pre-k grants may displace Head Start but whether there will any new funding for early learning at all. We may face the real possibility of budget cuts and the loss of services to children and families. We need to put aside the battles of the past few years and heated discussions with our most enduring champions because we simply cannot afford to have them anymore.     

Find Common Ground With Our Critics.   

We are not going to survive simply by changing our messaging and communications. In
other words, we can’t simply go into Republican offices and talk about the return on investment and hope to make it out of this situation alive. We really need to think about ways we can meet our critics in the middle where we can and where it might improve the experience for the children and families we serve. Some examples may include the following:
  • We should work with the Office of Head Start to streamline the standards and look for efficiencies where we can find them. You and I know there are too many standards and that the amount of paperwork is getting in the way of the actual work of providing high quality early learning to our most at-risk children. It’s ok to admit this and still support the wide array of services we provide to children and families. In fact, one could argue that trimming the standards will actually help us do our job better.
  • We need to get behind real reforms that will strengthen the quality of teaching and experiences for our most at-risk children and make sure they are long-lasting. We should be open to learning from the latest research being conducted on top-flight pre-k programs around the country. Some of them are getting better results when it comes to child outcomes. Head Start should be open to making some changes based on the research while still delivering the health, nutrition, and family partnership work that we know our families need to succeed. Some possible things for us to look at could be everything from looking at more full-day options and hours for children, increasing the pay and qualifications for our teachers and classroom staff, and learning from the research on how to maximize teacher-child interactions.
  • We need to embrace child and family outcomes.  Taxpayers need to know that if they trust us with their dollars we are producing clear, measurable results. Just meeting the performance standards is not enough. We heard recently from a well placed Hill staffer that if the Head Start community doesn’t come up with clear outcomes, Congress will do it for us.  Supporting child and family outcomes should be fairly easy as programs are already doing a lot of this, if not necessarily being held to it by the Office of Head Start.  Now we need to do the hard work to figure out how to actually make this work.
  • We need to find a reasonable role for state partnership and collaboration. I have been pretty clear that block granting Head Start is a bad idea. Block grants lead to lower funding and less local control and responsiveness. Don’t believe me?  See TANF or the Child Care Development Block Grant. I am also skeptical about how states will do managing Head Start when they already have so much trouble trying to make the child care subsidy system work effectively. Having said all that, we should look for creative approaches which could include expanding the role of the State Head Start Collaboration Office, data sharing, shared professional development, and alignment of monitoring, Training & Technical Assistance, and quality rating systems.

It’s Show Time: Get Your Tap Shoes On

Over the next two years we might be in for a bumpy and challenging ride. It’s conceivable that a Republican-controlled Congress will mean opportunities for the kind of strong bipartisan support for early learning in DC that we have seen across the country in state houses. Head Start used to enjoy this kind of bipartisan support as well. It was President George Bush Sr. that really got behind Head Start with some real dollars.  It may even lead to some interesting policy proposals and thinking and challenge us in good ways. But we also need to face the reality we are in. We are likely facing a time where funding for Head Start will be harder to come by. It may mean that we will battle cuts to the program and the real possibility of services to children and families being rolled back as we saw recently a result of the sequestration. As a member of the Head Start community you will likely be called upon more frequently to share your story with your member of Congress and to be a vocal and persistent advocate for the program. We have been here before and survived, and we will survive again if we stick together and continue to be champions for our most at-risk children and families.

Joel Ryan
Executive Director
Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP

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