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Published in Print: October 29, 2003, as Head Start Reauthorization Goals Detailed

Head Start Reauthorization Goals Detailed

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As the Senate prepares to hold hearings on the reauthorization of Head Start, five senators have presented a set of principles that they hope their colleagues will adhere to in considering legislation about the 38-year-old preschool program for poor children.

In a recent letter to Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the committee's ranking Democrat, the bipartisan group focused on improving the academic requirements of Head Start, strengthening its health and social services, and raising teacher credentials.

"Our main goal is to ensure that the program continues to fulfill its mission to help disadvantaged and disabled students attain the knowledge, skills, and physical well-being they need to succeed in school," says the Oct. 14 letter, drafted by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat from Arkansas. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Herb Kohl, D-Wis.; Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore.; and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., also signed it.

Head Start Views

In a letter sent to Sens. Judd Gregg and Edward M. Kennedy, the chairman and the ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, five senators say that the reauthorization of the Head Start program should include the following:
  • Increased support for literacy, language development, and numerical literacy, including outreach and support for children learning English;
  • Improved support services, such as health screenings, immunizations, social services, and nutritional support;
  • Tougher professional standards for Head Start teachers and greater resources for teacher training; and
  • Greater emphasis on research-based assessment standards for measuring student ability and teacher accountability.

The letter is also an attempt to discourage Senate Republicans from supporting the GOP-backed reauthorization plan passed by the House. That bill would give eight states control over federal Head Start money, allowing them to blend that aid with what they spend on their own state prekindergarten programs.

Republican backers say that to be considered for the new arrangement, states would have to increase what they are already spending on early-childhood programs and show that they have high standards.

But organized advocates for Head Start and many Democrats have asserted that such a pilot project would lead to the "dismantling" of the program.

"We have serious doubts that shifting responsibility for Head Start to cash-strapped state governments will improve program services," the senators' letter says.

The five senators also express concerns over a new assessment tool that is being implemented in Head Start classrooms this fall. Called the National Reporting System, the test is being given to all 4- and 5-year-olds in the program. It will be used, Bush administration officials say, to collect data on children's progress, to improve instruction, and as part of the system of monitoring programs.

But some observers say they are worried that the test— which includes questions on letter sounds, letter recognition, and numbers—is unreliable.

"I've watched children getting the test, and some have no problem pointing to all four pictures," even though they're asked by the test administrator to pick one answer, said John Bancroft, the executive director of the Puget Sound Educational Service Head Start program in Seattle, which serves about 1,800 children. "I have my doubts about what will be learned from these tests."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., has introduced a bill that would stop the test until congressional hearings, public forums, and a study on early-childhood assessment are conducted.

Administration officials have defended the test, saying less-formal assessments do not provide enough information to evaluate programs.

Meanwhile, the National Head Start Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based group representing program staff members and parents, joined with an organization called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities to sponsor a full-page advertisement in the Oct. 19 edition of The New York Times. The ad—signed by 90 business leaders—urges Congress to reject the Republican Head Start plan and argues that the program saves society and the government money.

Head Start, the ad says, "has given us a more productive workforce. It has created a larger pool of talent to choose from. And it has meant better child care for our employees."

Vol. 23, Issue 9, Pages 23,25

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