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Head Start grant writers and early childhood education program staffing woes

Head Start grantees are likely suffering, and grant writers looking to produce Head start budgets in the future are going to have to change, according to an article with a title that is exhaustingly long but still conveys the general point: “‘The pay is absolute crap’: Child-care workers are quitting rapidly, a red flag for the economy: Child care employment is still down more than 126,000 positions as workers leave for higher-paying positions as bank tellers, administrative assistants and retail clerks. Parents are struggling to return to work as daycare and after-school programs dwindle.”

Baseline pay for Head Start frontline workers has never been high, based on the budgets we’ve prepared and been given by our clients. But Head Start generally won’t increase grants to grantees who’re unable to hire workers in with their budget, and there is a minimum staff-to-child ratio—so grantees can’t simply deploy fewer staff for the same number of kids. I’m supposed to be the guy with the answers, but in this situation I’m not sure what grantees are going to do, or can do. Money for staffing is the big problem right now among Head Start and other similar early childhood education providers:

day care workers typically make about $12 an hour for a demanding job year-round. Public schools and other employers, which are also scrambling to hire workers, are poaching child-care staffers by offering thousands of dollars more a year and better benefits. A nearby Dunkin’ starts pay at $14 an hour.

If you’re paying less than fast food, you’re going to have trouble keeping and recruiting early childhood education staff, and there is no clear way around that blunt fact.

More than a third of child-care providers are considering quitting or closing down their businesses within the next year, as a sense of hopelessness permeates the industry, according to a report last month from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

It’s possible some of those providers will attempt to convert to Head Start operations, but many probably can’t, because some other organization already holds the local Head Start contract.

Although this article focuses on worker wages, the other big problem is rent: almost all municipalities have draconian rules around new construction and parking minimums, and those bad policies raise the cost of land and especially new buildings. The “yes in my backyard” (YIMBY) movement has arisen to attempt to combat unfair land-use laws, but the legislative process is slow and Head Start operators need relief now. Tech companies and the like may be able to pass those high land and rent costs onto customers, but low-margin businesses like Head Start or daycare can’t, so they merely suffer. There is a parent-and-family-focused argument for land-use reform, though relatively few people are making it (apart from me!). Still, “The housing theory of everything: Western housing shortages do not just prevent many from ever affording their own home. They also drive inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates” covers the topic. We’re not only short of housing—we’re also short of commercial buildings, like child-care facilities. In rural areas, most Head Start operators have no problems finding facilities. In urban ones, it can be excruciatingly difficult, due to local public policy.

The WaPo article focuses more than it should on shoving more public money into the problem; while that would be nice, so would cutting the cost of non-staff childcare costs—like rent—through land-use reform. Overall, we’re not far off from the inflation worries Isaac described a few weeks ago.

One woman says:

“Our country needs to look at what we really value. We should value our youngest learners,” Cover said. “Our youngest kids should be cared for and educated in settings that are no less than what they receive in K-12 school districts.”

Amen. But our youngest learners don’t vote, and our oldest do. There’s a cliche in economics and politics that goes something like, “Don’t tell me what you value, just show me your budget.” A cursory look at both federal and most state budgets reveal what we really value, as opposed to what we say we value.

This post first appeared on Grant Writing Confidential. Call us at 800.540.8906 for a fast, free fee-quote on any grant writing assignment.

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Deciding on the grant proposal structure: ACF’s recent Early Head Start (EHS) application illustrates the challenge

Many RFPs don’t simply and directly state, “Use the following header pattern in your response to the narrative questions.” Why don’t funders tell applicants which header pattern to use? Bureaucracy, legal requirements, funder indifference, signaling: whatever the reason(s), we’ve run into a bunch of program RFPs recently that don’t explicitly state what headers should be used (like the Small Business Innovation and Research grants (SBIRs) we wrote about last week). In structuring responses to confusing RFPs, there are two main schools of thought: one is to use the general headers found in the RFP, and then reply to all the sub-questions in paragraph form. The other school of thought is to use the general headers and every sub-header found either the narrative instructions (if there are any) or the review instructions (if there are any of those). Neither approach is necessarily “right.”

The recent ACF Early Head Start (EHS) RFP, for which we just wrote a proposal, offers a good example of this challenge. Like SBIRs, the EHS RFP has, bafflingly, two sets of narrative instructions: on Adobe page 35, under “Approach” and the other on Adobe page 57, under “Application Review Criteria.” Neither is quite canonical—in other words, the instructions don’t say, in big bold type, “USE THIS HEADER SET.” Instead, ACF offers maddening ambiguity. Perhaps this maddening ambiguity is deliberate, but is more likely due to this fact: the folks who write the RFPs never write the proposals in response and, as bureaucrats, likely they simply don’t care.

Regardless, one has to decide whether it’s better to use just top-level outlines, like “1. Community Need and Objectives, 2. Program Design and Approach,” or sub-header outlines, like “1. Community Need and Objectives, a. the proposed service area and location(s) where services will be delivered.” We chose to mostly follow page 57, while still referencing material on page 35. As with SBIRs, though, there is no 100% right answer, because neither the NIH or ACF give applicants one—but both could reject applications that don’t follow the weakly specified instructions.

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Trying to Give Away Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) or Early Head Start (EHS)

We worked on a bunch of New York City Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) and federal Early Head Start (EHS) proposals last year, so we read with interest Katie Taylor’s NYT story “In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell.” New York is apparently having a tough time giving away valuable free stuff. The City and/or its UPK grantees have had to hire “enrollment specialists”—who we like to call “Outreach Workers” in proposals—to convince people to take the slots.*

This is strange: imagine Apple trying to give away MacBooks and having trouble finding enough takers. The 5th Avenue Apple Store would become even more of a disaster zone than it already is.

Usually it’s not hard to maintain a waiting list for UPK or EHS, but keeping the census up can be difficult. Parents sometimes enroll their kids and then don’t actually bring the kids (this is a specific example of the more general problem of people not valuing what they don’t pay for). Nonetheless, the need to advertise free stuff contradicts the de Blasio quote in the story:

“Parents get what this means for their kids,” the mayor said. “They understand the difference between their child getting a strong start and not getting it.”

Right.

There is another interesting moment in the story: “It is critical to Mr. de Blasio’s credibility that the program ultimately be seen as successful.” The key words are “be seen as.” The program doesn’t have to be successful; it only must be perceived that way. That’s true of virtually every government-funded grant program.

Smart applicants know his and tailor their proposals, reports, marketing, and other material appropriately. In the grant world there are no failures; there are only programs that need more money and time to thrive with ever-greater success, leading to a glorious future when the next five-year plan has been fulfilled.

One can see this principle at work in “Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes,” where we describe how “the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data.” One of our clients didn’t realize this and submitted self-reported data not to the DOL’s highly improbable standards. Our client didn’t realize that the DOL doesn’t want to know the truth; the DOL wants to be told that they’re still the prettiest girl at the dance.

In general we are not hugely optimistic that early childhood education is going to have the widespread salutary effects regularly attributed to it by its defenders. But we stand, as always, on the side of truth and the side of the organizations we work for—our job is always to get the money and let researchers fight it out elsewhere.**

EDIT: At Slate.com Alison Gopnik adds that “New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire.” Presumably anyone who has spent any amount of time around two to five year olds is aware of the… challenges… in the approaches mandated by UPK and EHS.


* Incidentally, this:

“Good morning,” she said, approaching a young couple at a playground in Brownsville this month. “Do you know any 4-year-olds?”

Is the same sort of thing that people who call themselves “pick-up artists” or “gamers” do. Shanté Jones probably isn’t as polished, but I hope she has read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I prefer the pre-1981 edition which is less politically correct but also a useful reminder of what people, or at least one person reflecting on his cultural milieu, thought in the 1936s. “Cultural milieu” is also a good proposal phrase.

** James Tooley’s book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves is also good on this subject.

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Grant Writing Confidential Goes to the Movies Part 3: Ghostbusters (Who Ya Gonna Call? Program Officers!)

Ghostbusters was Jake’s favorite movie when he was a child. He watched the video at least a hundred times and it remains a classic of its type.* As Ray Parker put it in his incredibly catchy, eponymous Ghostbusters theme song, “When there’s something strange in the neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!” There’s a Koanic simplicity in this advice: when you have a problem, call the expert, not someone pretending to be the expert.

I was reminded of this over the summer, because we wrote proposals for clients applying to several federal grant programs with incredibly complex RFPs and underlying guidelines, including the HRSA New Access Point (NAP) and the Early Head Start (EHS) programs. Our clients for these assignments all had unusual or complex project concepts that required closely reading and carefully interpreting the RFPs and regs. The RFPs and regs raised issues for both our clients, though we can’t specify what those issues are; trust us when we say that they were real.

Our standard advice to clients in this situation—and as we’ve we’ve written about many times—is to immediately contact the Program Officer listed in the RFP and pop any questions about vague descriptions or apparent conflicts. At Seliger + Associates, we almost never contact Program Officers directly, since they rarely pay attention to consultants. Instead, we coach our clients on how to pose the question and get as clear a written interpretation as possible.

But our NAP and EHS clients didn’t want to contact the Program Officers; instead, they sought guidance from their state association, which are effectively trade groups for grantees. For large programs, like HRSA Section 330 and Head Start, networks of state and national organizations have grown up, which provide technical assistance and the ever-popular grantee conferences. An example is the Community Health Care Association of New York State, which is composed of Section 330 providers in New York and assorted hangers-on (note that we did not write a NAP proposal in New york this year—and I found CHSNYS through a Google search). When a big RFP for NAP, Head Start and similar federal programs comes along, these associations put on a full-court press to “help” applicants in their states prepare proposals. This help does not mean writing the proposal, although sometimes the association will provide data and research citations. The technical assistance usually involves meetings, Powerpoint presentations, webinars and so on.

Applicants rarely realize, however, that their association provides the same help to all agencies in their state. Rather than being truly interested in their particular agency submitting a technically correct proposal, the association is more like a mom passing out orange slices at a middle school swim meet—they want all agencies to come in first. Like a swim meet, however, and human nature being what it is, some applicants are favored by the “moms” and get extra orange slices, while others get orange-dyed onion slices.

We had a NAP client a few years ago in a western state that ran into active opposition from the state association because the association staff hated our client. I know this for a fact, because the association Executive Director told me so! Despite the association’s animus and refusal to provide a support letter, we wrote a compelling proposal, which was funded, much to the annoyance of the association, which then had to include our client.

The basic problem in asking associations or consultants for RRP interpretation is simple: they don’t work for the federal agency. Their opinions regarding a particular RFP don’t mean anything. The only way to get an interpretation of an RFP is by asking the Program Officer in writing and getting a written reply. Even then, the response is likely to say something like “this is subject to the guidelines, as published in the Federal Register.” Over the years, we’ve helped our clients thread their way through this process many times, including instances in which the federal agency published a correction to the RFP (as Jake writes at the link). A published RFP amendment is the gold standard for RFP interpretation.

Be careful in taking the advice of your state association, no matter how much fun their conferences are. When there’s something strange in a RFP neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Program Officers!


* I recently saw the grandaddy of ghost/comic films, 1940’s The Ghost Breakers, with the hilarious Bob Hope, exquisitely beautiful Paulette Goddard and a very young Anthony Quinn. If you like Ghostbusters, you’ll love The Ghost Breakers. It’s little non-PC, but the movie was made in 1940.

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Lots of Crap Required in an Early Head Start (EHS) Proposal, but Here’s What’s Missing: Shit. Literally.

The latest Early Head Start FOA is blessedly shorter, in both FOA and the required narrative, than it used to be. But it’s still astonishingly detailed. Applicants must discuss attitudes towards discipline, staffing plan minutia, approved curricula, snacks, parent contact, daily plans, transportation, and on and on.

One conspicuous point that should be obvious to anyone who has spent time around very little kids is absent, however. If you have dozens of kids under the age of three, the primary staff activity isn’t going to be reading or counting or structured art or whatever. It’s going to be making sure the kids haven’t had an “accident.” Basic bodily issues will disrupt many of the best-laid Pre-K plans conceived by Washington D.C. early childhood education thinkers.

Earlier today Isaac and I were talking about the first time he walked into a Head Start classroom, back around 1978. The first thing that struck him was the relatively huge bathroom and its many, many toilets. Every one of them had a little kid occupying it. He mentioned that to the teacher, who rolled her eyes and walked away. Keeping the attention of a group of neonatal to 36-month-old kids is hard enough; keeping them clean is going to consume more time than any other activity apart from sleeping and eating.

In the Early Head Start and Head Start proposal world, however, these issues don’t exist. It would be funny to add details about potty training, or lack there of, to a narrative, and ideally to describe the issue in great, exquisite detail, and perhaps to add a validated curriculum (which we would invent, of course). Not funny enough that we’d ever do it, but definitely funny enough to contemplate the response of the reviewers. They would what—shit their pants?