June 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

OUR EDITORIAL

Editorial: DPS' lost Head Start funds worrying

Bungled federal preschool money shows that state oversight hasn't solved all district's problems

Early education is critical. The loss of Head Start funds could stunt the intellectual growth of Detroit's children. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

From the business community to the Legislature, the push for early education is on the rise in Michigan. That’s especially true in cities like Detroit where the majority of children don’t enter kindergarten with the skills they will need.

So the news that Detroit Public Schools lost out on $4 million in federal Head Start funding because of a filing mishap is alarming on several levels.

Education funding is in short supply, and DPS ought to have guarded those resources with more care. But this oversight is the exact sort of mistake that an emergency manager was supposed to prevent. The district is now under its third emergency manager in a five-year span, with Jack Martin the latest to hold the post. The error did not occur on his watch.

The Head Start shortfall should worry Gov. Rick Snyder.

The district says a consultant tasked with handling the application for early education funding is behind the error. And spokesman Steven Wasko admits it’s a “serious issue” and DPS’ responsibility. That money translates into the loss of about 900 federally funded spots for low-income preschoolers in 56 classrooms.

Despite the loss of money, DPS says it will be offering more preschool options than ever this fall, thanks largely to significant growth of the state-funded Great Start Readiness Program. The district also says it will add to its Title I pre-K programs. In total, it expects to expand its early ed offerings by 540 seats in 34 new classrooms throughout the district in the 2014-15 school year. Enrollment in early childhood education programs in DPS this school year is 3,363.

Since Snyder took office, funding for Great Start has more than doubled — and so have the spots for preschoolers in the state. Snyder’s goal was to eliminate waiting lists for children from low-income families. And the latest $65 million boost should do that.

Yet if DPS usurps more of the state money to make up for its shoddy oversight, that means other classrooms in the state won’t get that money. That doesn’t seem fair to those other districts and families.

Keith Johnson, head of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, is understandably perturbed about the loss of money.

“In a district that is already financially strapped, we cannot afford to lose any funding we receive," Johnson said.

The error actually happened more than a year ago when Roy Roberts was still emergency manager, but it’s just now coming to light. DPS had appealed the decision but was still unable to secure the funding. The district first contacted the governor’s office about the situation earlier this month.

DPS sought to become a direct grantee of Head Start funding in May 2013, after the city of Detroit lost control of that money because of a pattern of mismanagement.

Head Start programs will still be available for Detroit families at community organizations such as Matrix Human Services, Metropolitan Children & Youth, New St. Paul Tabernacle and Starfish Family Services.

“DPS remains committed to providing these critical programs to as many Detroit children as possible,” Martin said in a statement. That’s good to hear, but it doesn’t excuse this error.

As Martin continues to address a $127 million deficit, enrollment decline and other intrinsic problems at DPS, he must make sure basic operations — like funding applications — are handled with competence.