The Los Angeles County Office of Education could lose a $220-million federal… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
At a Pomona preschool recently, children played with a large wooden train set, built a fort with colorful cardboard blocks and listened attentively as their teacher discussed ways to be safe in school and outdoors.
It was a typical day, but the program at Harrison Elementary School and many others like it are facing atypical times, because the agency that manages these Head Start contracts may lose its $220-million federal grant.
The Los Angeles County Office of Education was included among more than 130 agencies around the country that did not meet federal performance standards and will now have to compete with other potential providers to receive funding. Head Start is a nearly 50-year-old preschool program for low-income families; about 1 million children are enrolled.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Head Start program, enacted reforms in December to address concerns about quality and accountability, among other things. They include a provision that, for the first time, requires low-performing agencies to compete for funding. Previously, funding for grantees was automatic.
The changes to the program took on a new urgency after a federal study in 2010 found that children in Head Start improve their language and literacy skills but that many of the gains disappear by the end of first grade.
Though many providers applaud the intent of the reforms, they also fear potential disruptions in funding and operations.
For example, plans by the Pomona Unified School District to open programs in San Bernardino County in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Office of Education could be threatened, officials said.
"If [the] Los Angeles County office doesn't get funded, where are we?" asked Ofelia Lariviere, director of the child development program in Pomona Unified, which includes Harrison Elementary. "We want them to get it, and we are going to do our best to help them."
The L.A. County Office of Education is the largest Head Start agency in the country, overseeing contracts with 25 Head Start providers that serve 23,000 preschoolers, toddlers and infants. The agency was put on notice in 2010 when a federal review found that seven providers did not maintain adequate record keeping and that staff members at an eighth failed to sign some required forms.
New procedures were put in place, the federal government approved them and the case was closed in August. But because the new Head Start rules are retroactive to June 2009, the Los Angeles office is still required to reapply for its grant.
The Los Angeles County Office of Education "still feels confident in its ability to re-compete," said the county's interim Head Start director, Keesha Woods. "We have a long-standing record of quality services and take our jobs very seriously as stewards of public dollars working with less-advantaged children."
But Woods noted that parts of the new regulations are a challenge for large agencies, including hers.
"You can have several programs doing a superb job and one with challenges," she said. "As the grantee with monitoring responsibility and contract oversight, we should be able to do what is necessary without the entire grant being put at risk."
Rick Mockler, executive director of the California Head Start Assn., and other early education officials said they are worried that forcing so-called super grantees, including Los Angeles County and New York City, to reapply for funding appears to be part of a federal attempt to break up the larger agencies.
Federal authorities insist there is no bias in favor of smaller grant holders.
"What we're really looking for is to increase the quality of Head Start services that kids in these areas are receiving, and this is an opportunity for other organizations to say, 'I can do this and I can do this better,'" said Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the federal Office of Head Start.
Many parents, meanwhile, are largely unaware of the potential changes in Los Angeles. Helda Munoz, whose 4-year-old twins attend the Head Start program at Harrison Elementary, said she appreciates the quality of the program and the skills her children are learning.
"They are preparing them well," Munoz said.
For Los Angeles Head Start providers, state budget woes are adding an extra dimension of anxiety. Last year, California's early childhood programs, including state preschool, suffered more than $260 million in cuts. Gov. Jerry Brown's 2012-13 budget proposal released Thursday calls for a $500-million cut to child care and preschool programs, as well as the elimination of $224 million in funding for transitional kindergarten for 4-year olds that was to begin next fall. About 125,000 children could be affected.
Laurel Parker, director of the Head Start and state preschool program for the Norwalk La Mirada Unified School District, last year cut $250,000 from the $1.3-million program, laid off three staff members and eliminated a classroom, requiring 24 families to find new services.
The Childcare Resource Center, a nonprofit agency in Chatsworth that serves more than 15,000 children in Head Start and state preschool programs, lost 20% of its operating budget — $25 million — in the last two years. The agency closed more than 140 centers and laid off 70 employees, although some have been rehired.
"People will say we need to support working families," said Michael Olenick, president and chief operating officer of the center. "And especially at the low end of the scale people are holding on by a thread, but there doesn't seem to be much sympathy right now."