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Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as Advocates Question Bush Plan To Revamp Head Start

Advocates Question Bush Plan To Revamp Head Start

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Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign proposal to make Head Start a Department of Education program is getting a cool reception from advocates for the 34-year-old preschool program for low-income children.

Moving the program out of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, Mr. Bush argues, would make Head Start first and foremost an education program, not just a "day-care, health, and nutrition program."

"Head Start was originally intended as a literacy program, designed to close the achievement gap between rich and poor," Mr. Bush, considered the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, told a group of Hispanic business leaders during a speech in September. "My administration will reform Head Start programs and aggressively emphasize early reading skills." He went on to pledge to carry out his plan "without sacrificing Head Start's important social and medical services."

But those affiliated with the program say Mr. Bush has his history wrong.

In a letter to the governor following his speech, Sarah M. Greene, the chief executive officer of the National Head Start Association, wrote: "Head Start was originally designed as a comprehensive preschool program, that recognized that health, nutrition, parental involvement, social services, and education together provide the framework and tools necessary to help low- income children prepare for school and to assist their parents in their children's life and their own."

Carter Proposed Move

Head Start first resided in the Office of Economic Opportunity, which administered federal anti-poverty programs. President Johnson had launched Head Start in 1965 as part of his War on Poverty; later, it became part of what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Giving the Department of Education control of Head Start is not an original idea, however. President Carter tried to fold Head Start into the Education Department when it was split off from HEW into a stand-alone agency nearly two decades ago. But a congressional committee reviewing the plan voted against it and recommended that Head Start remain under the authority of the newly christened Department of Health and Human Services' administration for children, youth, and families.

In the 1980s, under President Reagan, the program faced proposed budget cuts and the possibility of its funding being turned over to the states as a block grant. But Head Start supporters kept that from happening.

During the Bush and Clinton administrations, the program has expanded. Under President Clinton, Early Head Start—for infants and toddlers—was added.

Just last year, Congress reauthorized Head Start through 2003, adding specific educational standards for children and training requirements for teachers. Most who teach in the program will now need to earn at least a two-year college degree.("House Passes Head Start Reauthorization Bill," Sept. 23, 1998.)

"Last year, Washington set some new goals for this program," Gov. Bush said in his speech. "Now we need a president to strongly implement them."

Congress also outlined new research goals for Head Start that include a study of the program using random sampling—a research design that has never been used for Head Start. A 1997 report by the General Accounting Office, often cited by critics of the program, concluded that past research had not proven whether Head Start was making a positive difference. Researchers have expressed objections to a randomized trial in the past because of concerns about excluding some children from Head Start in order to assign them to a control group.

The Advisory Committee on Head Start Research and Evaluation, which was required by last year's congressional reauthorization, issued a report in November stating that random sampling should be used to answer two central questions: What difference does Head Start make for low-income children, and under what circumstances does Head Start work best?

Some critics say Mr. Bush's plan doesn't go far enough.

"Head Start has failed to help children for 35 years," said Darcy Olsen, the director of education and child policy at the Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington think tank. She added that it's not "bold and ambitious" to simply change the agency that oversees the program.

But Susan B. Neuman, an associate professor of education at Temple University in Philadelphia, called the proposal a "potentially very interesting idea."

"If it adds credibility and resources, I'm all for it," she said, but added that simply moving Head Start to the Education Department won't spur enough change unless more pre-literacy materials are developed for preschoolers.

HHS officials say they are proud of their efforts to both increase the number of children served by Head Start and raise the quality of the program.

Federal, State Picture

Head Start also fared well in the recent budget negotiations for fiscal 2000. Congress approved a spending plan that would increase funding for the program from $4.7 billion in fiscal 1999 to $5.3 billion in fiscal 2000, meeting the Clinton administration's budget request. The administration has set a goal of serving at least 1 million children by 2002. About 820,000 children are in the program now.

Since the 1994 reauthorization, the Health and Human Services Department has also dealt more aggressively with local agencies that failed to meet the program's standards.

"We've terminated over 100 programs and turned around many more programs just by being tougher," said Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the department's administration for children and families.

Under Mr. Bush's plan, programs that were up for renewal would undergo an independent evaluation "to make sure they are successfully putting our children on the track to learning and literacy." If not, Mr. Bush said, the contracts would be put up for competitive bidding in which other groups, including churches and synagogues, would be allowed to run programs.

Ms. Greene of the National Head Start Association noted that Head Start grantees already go through an evaluation process every three years and that religious institutions already serve as Head Start grantees, as long as they "adhere to the doctrine of separation of church and state" in administering the program.

In some states, links are already being forged between Head Start and other education programs, or at least other state-financed early-childhood-education programs.

For example, Alaska legislators recently consolidated early-childhood-education programs and child-health programs into the newly named Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

And in Georgia, the Office of School Readiness, an agency in the governor's office that oversees the state's lottery-financed prekindergarten program, manages a Head Start collaboration project. That effort, paid for with federal grants, seeks to form connections between Head Start and other programs for young children.

While officials of the federal Education Department say they have no interest in assuming control of Head Start, they are involved in improving the educational piece of the program, said Erica Lepping, a spokeswoman for the department.

"Interest in moving the program may assume that there is no communication" between the Education Department and HHS, she said. "The Department of Education enjoys a good collaborative relationship with HHS. We'd like that to continue."

Vol. 19, Issue 14, Pages 23,25

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