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Head Start: Management Issues

Edward Zigler is a developmental scientist and a pioneer and leader in the field of applied developmental psychology.  He served on the 9780195393767committee that planned Head Start and was the federal official responsible for the program during the Nixon administration.  Sally J. Styfco is a writer and social policy analyst specializing in issues pertaining to children and families.  Together they wrote, The Hidden History Of Head Start, which looks at this remarkable social program that has served 25 million children and their families since it was established 44 years ago.  We get an insider’s view of the program’s decades of services and an idea of what the future may hold.  In the excerpt below we learn about one of the pitfalls of such a far-reaching social program.

Why had Head Start fallen into such a sorry state between its birth in 1965 and 1970? Two insiders very close to Head Start in the early days, Carolyn Harmon and Ed Hanley (1997), argue that the culprit was an inadequate management system. Head Start employed a “recipient-participant model,” whereas most federal programs employed the “classical accountability model” of management. The classical model emphasizes uniform program design and delivery systems, a structure that lends itself to standard techniques of evaluating success. In the recipient-participant model, the only accountability to the federal government is the satisfaction of grantees and the recipients of the services. As long as local Head Start administrators and participants were satisfied, the program had demonstrated accountability. Harmon and Hanley explain that this model was a barrier to efforts to standardize practices across Head Start centers. They also point out the inevitability of introducing a concrete form of program accountability to justify continued federal support from the Office of Management and Budget and even the friendliest Congress…

Having performance standards and some mechanisms to be sure they were being followed were only the first steps in implementing a new model of accountability. With roots in Community Action, Head Start could not easily give up its federal-to-local management design. Unquestionably there is much stronger financial oversight in the accountability model, where funds go from the federal governments to the states. Each state then gives the money to local sites and is responsible for monitoring them. The states are monitored by the feds. Head Start funds instead go directly from the federal government to local grantees. Oversight of the grantees is the responsibility of the 10 regional offices. However, as originally conceptualized these regional offices were not viewed as watchdogs but as partners with the local sites, helping them to solve problems and function smoothly.

They were not the only federal officials who appeared too lenient with their flock. A short time into my stewardship of Head Start, a financial problem was brought to my attention from the regional office level that made me furious. A local Head Start director (who happened to be a black minister) had been given funds to purchase limber to renovate his Head Start center. Instead he appropriated the lumber and built a house for himself. I had to decide what the Head Start Bureau’s reaction to this malfeasance would be. In the normal world, when thievery takes place the police are called, and the criminal justice system runs its course. I was very angry and wanted to purse the most severe course of action possible. I myself could not take any action but had to discuss the issues with HEW’s chief attorney, who was the one who would conduct whatever response HEW wished to pursue.

I charged into the lead attorney’s office and exclaimed that I wanted the man arrested, punished, and made an example for others in the Head Start community. I was rather agitated, but my colleague was anything but. He begged me to calm down, explaining that the situation was actually routine and unimportant. He then gave me a tutorial on the history of graft in government. He pointed out that when immigrant groups of any ethnicity finally achieved some political power, they invariably engaged in patronage and graft. They saw this as nothing more than their legitimate right after having suffered hardships and discrimination. He pointed out that for the first time African Americans had some control over government funds and were behaving in the same manner as other ethnic groups at that moment in their histories.

What was left unsaid, but certainly implied, was that making a big hubbub over a little lumber would put Head Start in a bad light on the Hill, and we certainly did want this image of Head Start to make the news. After his rather lengthy discourse, this head of the HEW legal office asked me, “What do you really want to do to this man?” It was clear to me that the right answer to this little test was “nothing.” However, this more than citizen Ed Zigler could tolerate, so I asked if maybe could just get the lumber back. He guided that I was much too busy with major issues to worry myself about such a small degree of malfeasance. To this day I do not know exactly what course of action HEW pursued, but I do know the incident was never publicized or even leaked to Congress. I am sure hundreds of such events have occurred in Head Start over the years, just as they have in ever other federal program.

These scandals sometimes make the local papers and someone brings them to the attention of the top layers of Head Start’s management… The Clinton Administration was aggressive in policing Head Start centers, revoking more grants than the number rescinded in all of Head Start’s prior history. Although it was implied that these programs did not measure up to the performance standards and were terminated because of poor quality, the fact is that many of these closures were due to missing or misappropriated funds. When serious malfeasance is discovered, the standard procedure is to give the grantee the choice between returning the stolen money or giving up the grant without further appeal. Unsurprisingly, the common choice is to let the grant be transferred to a new grantee…

…Although financial malfeasance in Head Start over the years has been higher than it should be, it certainly is the exception and not the rule.  Head Start is a multibillion dollar program with over 1,600 grantees and nearly 19,000 centers, so it would be naive to think the government can account for every single dollar.  Further, we do not know how much mishandling of funds is due to poor management rather than criminality.  For the most part, Head Start directors come from disciplines like early education, social work, or other human services.  They are not necessarily well-versed in accounting and administrative practices.  Being a Head Start director today is very much like running a small business with a sizable payroll.  One solution some programs have tried is to hire a for-profit company to take over formal management of the grant so the director can concentrate on program services.  Better administration can result in cutting costs to the degree that these savings cover the price of the contract…

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