Block Grants, Early Childhood Education, and the Reauthorization of Head Start: From Positional Conflict to Interest-Based Agreement
65 Pages Posted: 19 Oct 2011
Date Written: October 14, 2011
In early 2003, the Bush administration proposed and Congress considered two types of highly controversial structural reform to Head Start, the federal program that since 1965 has provided early education and comprehensive health and social services to low-income preschoolers and their families. First, the proposal would begin funding Head Start through federal block grants to the states rather than through direct federal grants to local agencies. Second, the proposal would shift oversight of Head Start at the federal level from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to the Department of Education (ED). Variations on these two proposals have been offered many times since Head Start was created, and each time Head Start advocates have successfully lobbied against them. This time is no different: neither the version of the reauthorization bill approved by the House in September 2005 nor the version of the bill currently awaiting consideration by the Senate contains either of these structural reforms.
That these proposed reforms are no longer under active consideration has been held out as a victory by Head Start advocates, led by the National Head Start Association (NHSA) and joined by a variety of other advocacy organizations. This article questions that conclusion, and instead argues that Head Start advocates would do well to reconsider their long-held opposition to both changes. Much of the opposition to these changes stems from reflexive reaction and a history of mistrust instead of dispassionate policy analysis. The policy needs and doctrinal context that led to the original structure of the program – for example, the need to bypass racist state governors who were willing to close down school systems to avoid integration, in an environment of almost limitless federal authority to create civil rights legislation – are increasingly out of place in today’s world. In fact, Head Start is now an outlier with respect to other social welfare and education programs, which are largely funded by the federal government through block grants to the states; educational authorities are now turning towards comprehensive service delivery models that are the hallmark of Head Start programs; and the Supreme Court has sharply curtailed the atmospherics of limitless federal power in which context Head Start was created.
This article proceeds in four parts. Section I traces the history of the conflict over proposals to change Head Start’s funding and organizational structure. I conclude that the dispute cannot easily be reduced to partisan politics and that the substance of the opposition has changed very little over the years, even though the particular proposals for structural change have been quite different. Section II examines the policy and doctrinal changes relevant to Head Start over the last forty years, arguing that the needs and expectations of the 1965 program have a very different resonance in the new millennium. Section III considers why the advocates have been so resistant to structural change, given these changed circumstances. The literature on negotiation theory and practice offers a helpful lens. through which to analyze the problem, especially in the literature’s distinction between positions – the particular and opposing outcomes to which each side stakes a claim – and interests – the underlying reasons why each side finds its desired outcome appealing. I explore the benefits of paying attention to interests over positions, the perils of focusing on narrow positions, and the barriers to an interest-based process. Finally, Section IV proposes a way forward, offering an inclusive and participatory consensus-based process to help the parties consider and respond to the underlying interests behind their positions. The article concludes that an honest assessment of the role of Head Start in the country’s early childhood education and care movement could lead to structural experimentation that would benefit all concerned.
Keywords: Head Start, Negotiation Theory, Funding, Reform
JEL Classification: K10, H51, H52
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation