Voucher Plans Surface in Hearing on Head Start Reauthorization
Voucher proposals emerged as a topic of debate last week at the second hearing this year on the reauthorization of Head Start, the government's 33-year-old preschool program for poor children.
Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., who testified before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families on June 9, would like to see a limited voucher system in which children would be allowed to use federal funding to leave regular Head Start programs, which are run by nonprofit community agencies, to attend other early-childhood programs.
Local school boards would have to approve non-Head Start programs--which could include for-profit entities--where Head Start funding could be used.
Private programs can operate with less money per child, he argued, calling Head Start an "inflexible, costly, and sometimes unresponsive bureaucracy."
And Wade Horn, the president of the Gaithersburg, Md.-based National Fatherhood Initiative, proposed in his testimony that Congress set up a demonstration program in which a randomly selected group of Head Start graduates would receive tuition vouchers to use at public or private elementary schools.
"I now champion the use of school choice as the impetus for fundamental school reform," he said in his written comments to the subcommittee. Mr. Horn, whose organization promotes responsible fatherhood, served in the Bush administration as commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families.
Advocates for the federal preschool program countered that allowing children who are eligible for Head Start to attend other preschool programs with a voucher could compromise the quality of the services they receive.
"How would they enforce the performance standards?" said Townley Hritz, the associate director of government affairs for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association, referring to the detailed guidelines that Head Start grantees are required to meet.
State agencies that license child-care and early-education programs already have a hard time monitoring the programs under their authority, she said.
Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, declined to comment on the voucher proposals in an interview. But he added that the administration's goals of serving 1 million children by 2002 and of building upon changes made during the 1994 reauthorization of the program haven't changed.
President Clinton is asking for $4.7 billion in the fiscal 1999 budget for Head Start and Early Head Start, which serves infants and toddlers. Head Start, with a current budget of almost $4 billion, now serves about 800,000 children. ("Head Start Reauthorization May Emphasize Large-Scale Research," April 1, 1998.)
Meanwhile, last week in the Senate, the subcommittee on children and families completed its draft of the Human Services Reauthorization Act of 1998, which covers Head Start. That bill would encourage greater collaboration between Head Start and other early-education programs by providing waivers on a few select requirements, require English as the primary language of instruction, and state that one of the purposes of Head Start is to promote school readiness, particularly in the areas of literacy and numeracy. Also included are plans for a two-year, national impact study of the program and a move toward evaluating the progress of children in local programs.
Concerns Over Curriculum
At a joint House-Senate hearing held in March, the first hearing on reauthorizing Head Start, Rep. Frank Riggs, a Republican from California who chairs the House early-childhood subcommittee, indicated that he was interested in seeing more large-scale research on Head Start and strengthening the academic content of the program, particularly the portion that focuses on early reading skills.
The curriculum issue received more attention at last week's hearing.
Edward Zigler, the director of the Yale Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy in New Haven, Ct., and one of the founders of Head Start, said that, because the government doesn't mandate that a certain curriculum be used, the educational aspect of the program is sometimes weak.
"What type of curriculum works best, with which students, is an empirical question, and it is time that we answered it empirically," he wrote in his testimony.
And Catherine Snow, a professor of education at Harvard University, said that Head Start has missed an opportunity to provide rich literacy experiences for students, even though poor children are more likely to develop early reading problems. Head Start standards are explicit on health, cleanliness, and safety issues, she said, but not on language and literacy.
Rep. Riggs has also said he is interested in seeing better coordination between Head Start and state welfare-reform efforts.
Republicans and Democrats alike have contended that Head Start is increasingly out of step with the families the program is meant to serve, largely because the program traditionally operates only half a day and only during the school year.
They note that low-income parents--because of work requirements within the 1996 welfare overhaul--are now in greater need of full-day programs.
Vol. 17, Issue 40, Page 35