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Published in Print: March 29, 2006, as HHS Plan to Restructure Children’s Programs Draws Fire

HHS Plan to Restructure Children’s Programs Draws Fire

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A plan to restructure children’s programs in the Department of Health and Human Services is drawing fire from advocacy groups and members of Congress.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O. Leavitt unveiled the plan last month in a letter to Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. The secretary’s plan includes folding the Child Care Bureau, which administers the federal child-care block grant for low-income families, into the office of family assistance, which oversees the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families welfare program.

In his Feb. 22 letter, Mr. Leavitt wrote that consolidating the two offices would “improve communication with internal and external customers and better provide technical assistance relative to the state block grant programs administered by these two offices.”

But opponents of the idea say they’re worried that the restructuring treats child-care programs as simply “work support” to help families meet their TANF work requirements and would diminish the contribution that good child-care programs can make to preparing youngsters for success in school. For example, state child-care offices have been a key part of President Bush’s Good Start, Grow Smart initiative to draft standards for young children’s learning.

“This is a step backward in the movement to improve the quality of care for all families, especially low-income families struggling to keep their children safe while they earn a living,” Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., said in a March 16 press release.

A bipartisan group of 11 senators and representatives also presented Mr. Leavitt with a letter opposing the consolidation. “With a large percentage of the nation’s children in out-of-home care, we believe [the Administration for Children and Families’] crucial focus on improving early education and care must be maintained,” the March 15 letter said.

And close to 300 nonprofit organizations have added their names to a March 9 letter to Mr. Leavitt opposing the plan.

Created in 1995 under President Clinton, the Child Care Bureau has been a symbol of efforts to ensure that the quality of care improves and that “child care is an educational opportunity for children,” said Joan Lombardi, who served as the bureau’s first commissioner until 1997.

She added that Secretary Leavitt’s plan, combined with flat funding for the child-care block grant over the past few years, “takes child care in the wrong direction.”

The restructuring doesn’t require congressional approval, and the secretary informed Congress only out of courtesy, said Steve Barbour, an HHS spokesman.

Boost for Head Start

Secretary Leavitt also plans to elevate the Head Start Bureau, which manages the federal preschool program for poor children, to a higher level within HHS, meaning that the bureau would be directly under the authority of Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Wade F. Horn, instead of under the Administration for Children and Families.

The change would give Mr. Horn more say over the $6.8 billion Head Start program, which is the largest discretionary program administered by HHS.

In his letter to Congress, Mr. Leavitt said the move would “improve the consistency in the monitoring of, and the provision of technical assistance to, organizations operating Head Start programs.”

The action also represents a policy shift by President Bush’s administration, which during the president’s first term wanted to move Head Start out of HHS and into the Department of Education.

That aspect of the secretary’s plan is supported by the National Head Start Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based group for Head Start employees and families that has often been at odds with the Bush administration.

“All of this will hopefully make things operate more efficiently,” Sarah Greene, the president of the association, said in an interview. “There won’t be as many chains to go through.” She added, however, that the association has signed the letter opposing the reorganization of the Child Care Bureau.

“We have worked hard to do wrap-around services. We fear that with moving it, we might lose some of that,” she said, referring to the practice of linking child-care funds with Head Start programs to care for children over the full time that their parents are working. Such efforts minimize the number of child-care arrangements that parents must secure and the number of transitions for young children during the day.

Mr. Barbour said the HHS Department had no intention of interfering with those arrangements or with the emphasis in child care on school readiness. “How does one lose in this proposition? We’re trying to further integrate the services we provide,” he said.

Vol. 25, Issue 29, Page 33

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