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Head Start Quality Debate May Scale Back Funding for Expansion

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WASHINGTON--Despite assurances by Secretary Donna E. Shalala that the Department of Health and Human Services will take decisive steps to respond to concerns about Head Start, it is unclear whether the program can win the full funding increase proposed by President Clinton.

Ms. Shalala last week urged a key Congressional panel not to let the recently raised concerns about the uneven quality of Head Start programs stall the expansion.

Mr. Clinton has proposed boosting spending for Head Start by $1.4 billion in fiscal 1994 and by about $10 billion over the next five years.

In an indication that the proposal is not likely to clear Congress unchallenged, Ms. Shalala was grilled by Democratic members of the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee last week about the agency's plans to address the recent criticisms.

Much of the criticism can be traced to two reports by the inspector general for H.H.S. that were officially released last week but that drew widespread media coverage when they emerged in draft form earlier this year. (See Education Week, March 31, 1993.)

One report suggests that fewer participants are reaping such Head Start benefits as childhood immunizations and family social services than has been reported by H.H.S. The other shows that, as the program has expanded in recent years, some grantees have had trouble meeting an increased demand for facilities, staffing, transportation, and social services.

The reports have touched off a debate among experts in the field about how to insure that an even level of quality is maintained across programs while increasing the numbers of children served.

'Head Start II'

In response to a question from William H. Natcher, D-Ky., the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee, at last week's hearing on H.H.S.'s budget request, Ms. Shalala said concerns about quality should "absolutely not'' delay Congress from expanding the program.

Ms. Shalala, who recently announced that her agency is forming a task force to examine Head Start operations, said the review would be completed in the next several months.

The result, she said, will be a "stronger and very different Head Start program'' that is more supportive of families and complements other Administration efforts in child care, early-childhood education, and welfare reform.

Ms. Shalala also pledged to "go beyond'' the inspector general's recommendations--which include improved recordkeeping, monitoring, training, and technical support--and make "significant changes in the quality of the program as we are changing the nature of the program.''

"This is the time and the opportunity to really move to the 'Head Start II' model,'' she said.

The Administration, she said, would like to see about one-third of the new funds go toward adding more children, one-third to making programs full day and full year "where appropriate,'' and one-third to such improvements as better facilities, more staff training, and higher teacher salaries.

'Totally Reorganized'

In response to a question from Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who voiced reservations about continuing to fund programs of poor quality, Ms. Shalala said she has "made it very clear'' to Head Start advocates that "we have no interest in letting weak programs continue.''

While existing law makes it difficult to cancel programs, she said, they could be "totally reorganized with new management.''

Mr. Hoyer suggested changing existing laws so that poor programs could be weeded out and said he would revisit the issue when the law comes up for reauthorization in fiscal 1994.

While Congressional sources last week predicted that spending for Head Start would be increased, many were skeptical it would receive the full amount Mr. Clinton is seeking.

Mr. Natcher noted at last week's hearing that the $1.4 billion requested for fiscal 1994 would mark a 50 percent annual increase.

Pressure to reduce the President's budget by $8 billion--the amount by which his request for domestic spending exceeds deficit caps, according to the Congressional Budget Office--is increasing the competition for funding among all programs, observers noted.

But, one Congressional aide said, "if you look at the rate of expansion, the quality problems, and the overall budget situation, those three things together mean [Mr. Clinton's request] is likely to be scaled back.''

Agreed Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, "Both the objective evidence about Head Start's problems [and] the honesty with which the Administration has discussed those problems'' have reduced "the pressure to either cut other programs or not give other programs so much money in order to give more money to Head Start.''

But Helen Blank, a senior program associate with the Children's Defense Fund, said the issues that have been raised should "bolster the case for expansion,'' because "you can't fix all these things without more dollars.''

Others, including David S. Liederman and Mary Bourdette of the Child Welfare League of America, suggested that the Head Start debate will bolster the program in the long run, even if expansion is slowed.

Mr. Besharov warned, though, against recasting the program's basic approach into something "we won't recognize when they're done.''

Rep. Jose E. Serrano, D-N.Y., warned Ms. Shalala, "Don't let some of these detractors try to get you to reinvent the wheel.''

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