The District’s public school system will lay off dozens of employees and make other cuts to its preschool program for low-income families, officials said Wednesday, after failing to meet federal safety standards and giving up millions of dollars in federal funding.

The cuts target Head Start, a national early-childhood program aimed at educating children from low-income families. Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the program, planned to withhold federal funding after flagging safety issues in the school system’s operation of the program. Rather than lose the funding, he pulled the application, he said, adding that he plans to address the systemic issues and consider reapplying in future years.

The school system will not lose any prekindergarten seats for 3- and 4-year-olds, Ferebee said. But 83 employees who provide social, health and academic support to the Head Start program and its students are expected to lose their jobs.

Established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty program, Head Start is intended to give children living in poverty a quality education before they reach kindergarten. The program also provides wraparound social and health services and teacher training. It has survived Democratic and Republican presidents, receiving funding increases under the Trump administration.

Congress has passed stringent regulations for the program. Funding is competitive and programs need to meet the standards to receive it. The D.C. school system received about $14 million in Head Start funding this academic year, Ferebee said, although he said an influx of higher-income families would have cut that funding by half or more next school year.

The District uses Head Start funding in its universal prekindergarten program for 3- and 4-year olds. Students who qualify for the program learn in the same classrooms as students who don’t.

But the school district has long run into trouble for failing to comply with the program’s requirements. A 2010 federal review of the program said “we believe the DCPS Head Start program currently does not have the capacity to manage accounts for Federal funds and is not capable of operating a Head Start program in accordance with Federal regulations.”

More recently, the federal government, which requires that schools report incidents to the federal program managers, has found safety issues, largely involving supervision of children. A 2019 performance report from the federal Office of Head Start listed two sexual incidents involving the program’s young participants. In one incident, an aide found two toddlers unsupervised in the bathroom. She said one was performing oral sex on the other.

The incident was reported to police and other local agencies but not to the regional Head Start offices, according to the performance report. Head Start learned of the incident when an anonymous person reported it to a program hotline.

Other child-care operators, including many private child-care centers, in the city also receive Head Start funding. Those programs will not be affected by the chancellor's decision to pull the school system’s application.

United Planning Organization, a nonprofit that operates Early Head Start programs across the city, runs programs for infants to 2-year-olds on some campuses in the traditional public school system. Ferebee said he is not in charge of those applications but anticipates those programs will remain intact.

Erika Bryant, a Head Start teacher at Excel Academy Public School in Southeast Washington, said many elementary school principals do not have a background in early-childhood education and Head Start ensures there are age-appropriate curriculums and activities in preschool programs.

D.C. Public Schools pays the salaries of preschool teachers, and Head Start funds paraprofessionals and support staff that are shared between multiple campuses.

“Head Start has a high-quality model,” Bryant said. “The performance standards is what makes sure that wherever Head Start is, they have those high-quality standards. It can be hard doing it, but it’s worth doing.” 

The loss of Head Start funding arrives as the coronavirus crisis threatens the District’s financial outlook. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) proposed in early March a significant 4 percent increase in spending for each public school student next year. But given likely budget constraints, it is unclear what the school system’s budget will be.

Ferebee did not say whether the city would attempt to use local funds to recoup any of the Head Start losses. But, he said, the local education budget does not rely on this federal funding.

The school system also said the 83 laid-off workers would be first line for school system job openings.

“We haven’t gotten specifics from the city of what the loss of revenue will mean for public schools,” he said.