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Head Start Grant Recompetition: Early Implementation Results Suggest Opportunities for Improvement


The Head Start program is the largest Federal investment in early childhood education. The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 required ACF to begin awarding 5-year grants for Head Start and to require grantees that ACF determines are not providing a high-quality and comprehensive Head Start program to "recompete"-i.e., to participate in open competition for funding renewal. In response, ACF began in 2012 to implement the Designation Renewal System (DRS). The DRS uses seven "trigger conditions" to assess a subset of grantees (known as a cohort) each year and determine which grantees will be required to recompete. These changes are intended to improve the quality of grantees receiving Head Start funds. However, stakeholders have raised concerns about the efficacy and fairness of this process.


To review the second cohort of grantees to undergo DRS assessment and recompetition, we combined data on (1) grantees' characteristics; (2) their performance histories; (3) the DRS determinations as to which grantees had their grants automatically renewed and which were required to recompete, and (4) the outcomes of those recompetitions. We summarized the DRS determinations and recompetition results, and we compared grantees' DRS determinations to other, non DRS performance data that ACF collects. Finally, we reviewed DRS determinations and recompetition outcomes for a subgroup of grantees that had lower performance on 10 selected measures than did their peers.


We found that one-third of grantees were required under the DRS to recompete for funding renewal. Grantees' DRS determinations were not linked to the number of Head Start enrollees they served, the types of areas (i.e., rural or urban) where their centers were located, the proportion of their enrollees who were from non-English-speaking families, or the proportion of their enrollees who were from very poor households. Of grantees required to recompete, approximately three-quarters had their grants renewed for an additional 5-year term. More than half of these grantees were the sole applicants for their respective grants. We also found that DRS determinations were largely inconsistent with other ACF performance data. Additionally, few grantees with lower performance on a hybrid of 10 DRS and non DRS performance measures left the Head Start program through the DRS and recompetition processes. Overall, 92 percent of Head Start grantees had their grants renewed.


We recommend that ACF proactively monitor grantees' performance results to verify that grantees designated under the DRS for automatic, noncompetitive renewal perform better than their peers. Additionally, ACF should take steps to increase the number of applicants for recompeted grants. ACF concurred with both recommendations.