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Head Start Advocates Say Funding Plan Favors Program Growth

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Over Quality By Deborah L. Cohen

Washington--The Department of Health and Human Services' emphasis on expanding the Head Start program to serve more children will make it difficult for local grantees to maintain or improve the quality of current services, Head Start advocates charged last week.

At a news conference organized by the National Head Start Association here, advocates argued that, by not allocating funds for across-the-board cost-of-living increases, h.h.s. is sidestepping the Congress's intent to bolster the quality of local programs.

When the 25-year-old Head Start program was reauthorized last year, the Congress mandated that the program serve all eligible preschoolers by 1994. But it also ordered that a portion of new funds be used to improve existing services, with at least half that allocation reserved for higher wages and improved employee benefits.

House and Senate authorizing committees stated in their reports that h.h.s. should continue to provide inflation increases, and that the funds for quality improvement "will not replace such increases."

In a March 19 memorandum detailing how new funds are to be allocated to Head Start grantees, h.h.s. did not include inflation increases as a line item in its instructions.

Head Start funding was raised by $399 million in the current fiscal year, to $1.95 billion. In addition to the $195 million for quality improvement and some $45 million for transition projects, parent-child centers, training, and technical assistance, h.h.s. allocated $159 million of the increase to program expansion. Head Start now serves 540,930 children, about 31 percent of the eligible population, according to Congressional estimates.

While voicing support for serving more children, Head Start advocates say h.h.s.'s failure to designate money specifically for cost-of-living increases will force grantees to use funds intended for quality improvement to maintain current services.

Don Bolce, the nhsa's director of government affairs, said the program has "been stretched so far that it is in danger of not being able to provide the level of services Head Start needs."

"Without provisions for cost-of-living increases, local programs will be forced to divert funds intended for quality improvements to offset inflation," said Ron Herndon, president of the National Head Start Directors Association and the director of a Head Start program in Portland, Ore.

He also cited a "long-term disregard for the effect of inflation," reflected in a 13 percent decline in per-child expenditures from 1981 to 1989.

In a letter to hhs Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, Eugenia Boggus, president of the n.h.s.a., also argued that, "without cola increases, Head Start staff will receive only minimal real increases in salaries from the quality reserve, and no new funds will be available ... to meet increased costs such as rent, utilities, postage, telephone, and supplies."

The chairmen of the House and Senate committees and subcommittees that have jurisdiction over Head Start also urged in a letter to Dr. Sullivan last month that such considerations be taken into account.

"We share your goal of extending Head Start services to as many eligible children as possible," the letter said, "but not at the price of diluting the program's overall quality."

Mr. Herndon said h.h.s's plan "seriously undercuts" efforts to improve Head Start teachers' salaries, which averaged $11,859 in 1990, according to the n.h.s.a.

The new aid should be used not only for better wages and benefits, said Helen Blank, director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund, but also to train and hire more staff members to work with a generation of Head Start families plagued by such social ills as drug abuse and homelessness.

In a written response following the news conference, Dr. Sullivan called the nhsa's charges "inaccurate and unwarranted," adding that it is one of the Bush Administration's "top priorities" to maintain the level and quality of Head Start services while expanding the program.

Diverting more funds than those already allocated for salary raises would "eliminate vital opportunities for tens of thousands of more eligible children," Mr. Sullivan said.

While the hhs plan did not call for "across the board" cola's, he said, regional Head Start offices will consider them on a case-by-case basis.

The March 19 hhs memorandum stated that "grantees that can demonstrate that an adjustment in their regular allocation is needed to maintain the level of services provided during the previous year may propose such an adjustment."

Mr. Bolce argued last week that such negotiations "historically have not worked well" for individual grantees when regional officials are "under pressure" to increase the number of children served.

The nhsa last week also called for an in-depth review of Head Start's regional offices, which it said are understaffed and hampered by inadequate support and training, and which sometimes implement policies at odds with those set at the federal level.

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