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Standards are important

 Ever since the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) on Head Start Program Performance Standards was released a month ago, I have been speaking about it with Head Start leaders, staff, and parents in communities from Texas to California to Alabama. As one who spends most of my time getting to know members of our community, I have been delighted – though not surprised – by their openness to change and their commitment to ensuring access to the highest quality for the vulnerable children and families they serve. Overall, the NPRM represents a strong vision of Head Start as a research-based program of the highest quality, with the flexibility for innovation and local design to support vulnerable children and families. The document also offers a badly needed reorganization to make the Head Start Program Performance Standards accessible for Head Start staff and partners to deliver the strength and breadth of Head Start’s comprehensive services.

The biggest challenge of the proposed standards, however, is the cost. The Office of Head Start estimates that implementing them without new funding would require cutting access for more than 126,000 children and families, and the prospect of that many lost opportunities, of those thousands of empty cribs and seats in Early Head Start and Head Start classrooms, is deeply concerning for all of us.  The devastation of services (cuts of over 50,000 children) caused by the recent sequestration pales by comparison.

{mosads}A voluntary survey of Head Start programs conducted by NHSA this spring reached over 300 program leaders, 94 percent of whom reported they’d be excited to expand full-day services given sufficient funding – though 50 percent said they would be excited for this expansion only if they were not forced to cut children to make it a reality. Even as the potential costs to families are staggering, an active survey of the field’s response to the NPRM currently has 74 percent of the Head Start field reporting that they support the standards with some changes to ensure effective implementation.

Nothing renews my own commitment to this work like the sight of the Head Start community embracing the opportunity to be engaged in a dialogue about strategies for both raising quality and preserving access. While achieving this will take education and advocacy, the bipartisan support Head Start has always enjoyed, and a shared understanding that children must be our priority in both word and budget, I look forward to seeing what the next decades of Head Start graduates accomplish in their lifetimes.

Over the next few weeks, and likely the next few years, NHSA will be leading a continued conversation about how best to refine and implement the new standards, with a focus on continuing Head Start’s fifty years of success in supporting children’s learning and development and their families’ stability and self-sufficiency. This is an important opportunity to take the best findings from research, and the best innovations from practice, and shape our future not only as a program but as a national commitment to our children.

Vinci is the executive director of the National Head Start Association.


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