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Published: Monday, 7/29/2013


Fresh start

The future of Head Start in Toledo and Lucas County — and of a black-run social-service agency that formerly administered the program — remains in doubt.

Federal regulators, in late 2011, essentially moved to strip the local Head Start preschool program from the Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo. They decided that EOPA and more than 120 other Head Start grant recipients nationwide did not meet quality standards and would have to compete for the first time to retain the program.

This spring, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services separately rejected rival bids from EOPA and Toledo Public Schools, arguing that neither proposal met its standards. The $12.2 million annual Lucas County Head Start grant was among only 5 percent of contracts nationwide that had no qualified bidder. That alone should embarrass and shame the community.

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Last month, Community Development Institute, a Colorado-based firm, started to run the Lucas County Head Start program on an interim basis. CDI runs more than 30 other Head Start programs around the country.

Regaining local control of a first-rate Head Start program will take a collaborative effort. That means putting aside turf battles, past beefs, and power politics to do what’s right for Toledo’s poor children. EOPA and TPS must lead the way in working to submit a combined local bid.

Both EOPA and TPS have received letters from the federal government critiquing their applications. They should compare notes and collaborate to develop a more competitive proposal.

Both agencies have assets. TPS has the classroom space. It runs preschool programs for special-needs students and should be able to provide a seamless transition from preschool to school.

EOPA has expertise and experience, having run the local program since Head Start began nationally in 1965. As a social service agency, it also has deep roots in the community.

EOPA has been plagued by controversy and infighting in recent years. The federal government obviously wasn’t happy with the way the agency administered the local Head Start contract.

To support their application to take over Head Start, TPS leaders offered statistics that purported to show that children who went through EOPA’s Head Start program did no better in school than those who didn’t.

Even so, given the disadvantages that poor children carry into the classroom, those comparisons are misleading. If Toledo’s Head Start children did at least as well as their more-affluent classmates, it could suggest the local program was highly effective.

Bruised egos may impede cooperation between EOPA and TPS. But the moral imperative of doing what’s best for Toledo’s disadvantaged children should compel both sides to put aside petty politics.

Head Start and other early childhood education programs are the smartest investments government can make. Along with preschool instruction for children between the ages of 3 and 5, Head Start provides health care, nutritious food, and social services. That saves money down the road in remedial education and social service and criminal justice costs.

Sustaining a high-quality, locally run Head Start program shouldn’t be about money, politics, or jobs. It should be about helping thousands of poor children in Toledo and Lucas County overcome disadvantages and realize their potential.

Strengthening EOPA also has community benefits. For nearly a half-century, EOPA has played a central role in local efforts to fight poverty and empower African-American and poor communities.

Aside from running Head Start, the agency has overseen programs that administer heating aid to low-income households, promoted fatherhood, provided home repairs, and worked with seniors. Toledo is a better community for these efforts.

Helping poor children learn, regaining local control of Head Start, and strengthening EOPA can best be done by a cooperative Head Start bidding effort led by EOPA and TPS.

Too much is at stake for politics, turf battles, and power grabs.

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