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Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to Head HHS

Today President Obama announced his selection of Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Rumors that Sebelius would be the next HHS Secretary have been circulating for weeks, following the withdrawal of his first nominee for the position, former Senator Tom Daschle. Sebelius is well-regarded in health policy circles and for her work across party lines as governor of a heavily Republican state.

Less well-known is Sebelius' strong record of support for early education. Kansas isn't the first state that comes to mind when we think of early education: It ranks only 19th among the states in pre-K access for 4-year-olds, and also gets less than stellar ratings on the quality of its early childood programs. But under Sebelius' leadership, the state has made substantial strides in improving access to early education. As Governor, Sebelius has worked to increase the state's investments in young children, proposing funding increases for early childhood programs in each of the past four fiscal years, establishing new Pre-K Pilot and Early Childhood Block Grant programs, and increasing the state's annual early childhood investment to more than $36 million.

That's good news, because as Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sebelius will be in charge of the federal government's biggest early childhood programs--Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Because President Obama has indicated that his administration will seek significant health care reforms this year, most of the attention to HHS staffing, and to Sebelius' nomination, has focused on health care. But HHS also has several important early childhood education issues on its plate this year, including writing regulations for the Head Start reauthorization that Congress passed last year, CCDBG reauthorization, overseeing stimulus funds for Head Start and CCDBG, and designing and implementing the new Nurse Home Visiting program Obama's budget calls for. In addition, HHS will have a critical role to play in any efforts to better coordinate early childhood programs at the federal level, or to remove barriers that currently prevent states from integrating and coordinating programs supported with various federal funding streams for early education. The fact that Sebelius clearly cares about early education, and has experience working to improve state early education programs as Governor, is important. Senators conducting her confirmation hearings should be sure to include questions about her vision for the future of Head Start, CCDBG, and the federal role in early education more generally--especially how she will ensure that HHS offices work together and with the Education Department to improve coordination among federal early childhood programs.

Even more important, though, will be the new administration's choice of an Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, as well as individuals to lead the Child Care Bureau and Office of Head Start. These positions play the lead role in overseeing federal early childhood programs run out of HHS--all the more so since much of Sebelius' time will be taken up with health care. Yet the administration is moving slowly in staffing up these positions, and we've so far heard nothing about potential candidates for them. Some folks we'd like to see in these roles include Joan Lombardi, a former deputy assistant secretary with ACF during the Clinton Administration; Chicago Chief Early Childhood Education Officer Barbara Bowman, who's been advising Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on early childhood; and Tonya Russell, who heads the Arkansas Department of Human Services Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education and has done great work in that state to improve coordination between child care, state pre-k, and Head Start. We'll keep a close eye on these important positions as the administration moves forward with staffing up HHS.


A very good start.

I think Kathleen Sebelius is a pretty good pick for this position, both on health care and early education issues. This post makes it clear her committment to promoting Head Start and other programs, so I need not repeat them but I am glad that the country finally has a HHS Secretary that has experience and passion for the issues that concern the department. There's no way to properly emphasize what a miserable failure Tommy Thompson was in this area.