HHS Hopes Early Head Start Partnerships Will Lift Child Care Quality

When Congress voted last month to pass an omnibus bill, few predicted it would be so generous to early education programs. It included an extra $1 billion for the federal Head Start program, a boost for the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, and $250 million for a Race to the Top competition centered on pre-K. It also set aside $500 million for an Early Head Start-Child Care (EHS-CC) partnership competition—similar to the one President Obama included in his 2013 pitch for a pre-K expansion, though a far cry from his proposed $1.4 billion set-aside.

Earlier this month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) trickled out the first information about the EHS-CC competition with the launch of a new website about the partnership programs. Though the program is still just a sketch, we took a look to try to fill in some of the blanks.

One thing jumps out: The EHS-CC partnerships seem designed to draft child care programs into the Early Head Start big leagues.

Right now, Early Head Start funds carry many more quality requirements than do child care dollars through CCDF. Early Head Start requires lower teacher-child ratios than Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF); its teachers are required to have a child development associate credential and other training; its programs include health screenings and services; and parent engagement is included as an explicit priority. CCDF, on the other hand, has very few requirements outside of basic health and safety standards for the facilities. Federal efforts from HHS to lift those standards through regulations are still being processed, and may not be implemented for a while; and a congressional reauthorization bill has yet to see the light of day on Capitol Hill, although some think it has a shot.

Under the partnership program, both center-based and home-based providers are eligible partners, but the Early Head Start center must be the applicant for the funds. CCDF grantees would be required to meet the teacher training standards established by Early Head Start within 18 months of winning the grants. (If we had to guess, that’s where the bulk of the money will go – 80 percent of CCDF providers are in notoriously lower-quality home-based settings, for whom 26 states don’t even require a high school diploma and only one state, Georgia, currently requires a CDA credential.)

What’s less clear is what the Early Head Start centers will get out of the experience. One likelihood is that they’ll receive additional flexibility in providing care to children. For example, an Early Head Start center could turn over care to its child care partner to provide additional hours of care, or year-round care, for the children it serves. Those were some of the uses in a demonstration project the Department was already conducted with a California Head Start nonprofit. According to that Head Start director, it offered the chance to receive the same great quality that Early Head Start provided, in other settings with which the parents were more comfortable (namely, home-based care) and for longer hours, especially while parents were working long days.

Or the funds could be used more flexibly to provide extra services to children. That kind of blending could make it easier to provide more services. It could also mean greater continuity of care, which has been shown to help children thrive. And joining forces could streamline the program (though it’s hard to imagine there won’t be more paperwork involved with the partnership than with just one of the programs), or create efficiencies of resources and materials for children.

According to the Department, administration officials are gathering input from organizations and providers right now, but they plan to publish a Funding Opportunity Announcement this spring and will move from there. In the meantime, check out the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships site yourself for more (albeit very limited) information about the program.

Author:

Clare McCann is the deputy director for federal higher education policy with New America's Education Policy program. She previously served as a senior adviser on higher education policy at the U.S. Department of Education.