Published Online: May 8, 2007
Published in Print: May 9, 2007, as House OKs Reauthorization of Head Start

House OKs Reauthorization of Head Start

Bill would suspend pupil assessments in preschool program.

The House of Representatives last week approved a bipartisan measure reauthorizing the Head Start program that seeks to boost accountability for grantees, improve state coordination on preschool programs, and encourage more teachers in the program to obtain bachelor’s degrees.

The bill was approved May 2 on a vote of 365-48.

Like a reauthorization bill the House passed in 2005, but that never won final congressional approval, the latest measure would suspend the National Reporting System, the controversial federal assessments the Bush administration has promoted to measure pupil learning in Head Start programs.

Head Start advocates have sharply criticized the assessment, saying it does not provide an accurate picture of children’s progress. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee approved its own version of the legislation in February that also would eliminate the testing program. ("Head Start Renewal Advances Amid Debate Over Testing," Feb. 21, 2007.)

But the assessment program did not generate much controversy during the floor debate.

Renewing Head Start

The bill to reauthorize the Head Start preschool program approved by the House of Representatives last week would:

● Suspend the National Reporting System, the federal assessments given to Head Start students.

● Establish state early-learning councils to coordinate preschool services.

● Require 50 percent of Head Start teachers nationwide to hold bachelor’s degrees by 2013.

● Make underperforming programs recompete for their grants. Note: A Senate education committee version awaits action on the Senate floor.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, emphasized Head Start’s role in preparing children for elementary school.

“The bill before us is central to achieving the goals of [the] No Child Left Behind [Act] because the achievement gap that appears later on in elementary school begins before these children reach kindergarten,” he said in introducing the measure on the floor of the House.

The Head Start bill was last renewed in 1998 and was due for a reauthorization in 2003.

Despite the broad bipartisan support, Democrats and Republicans squabbled over several provisions. For instance, to increase accountability for local Head Start programs, the measure would create a quality-review process that would require ineffective programs to recompete for their grants alongside new applicants.

Some GOP lawmakers, however, said that language did not go far enough. Rep. Adam H. Putnam, R-Fla., introduced an amendment that would have called for all programs to recompete for their grants every five years, regardless of their effectiveness. He said the amendment would motivate Head Start centers to improve continuously and ensure that the most effective applicants received federal funds.

“Unlike during the creation of the Head Start program, today across America there are thousands of potential providers,” Mr. Putnam said during the floor debate. “School boards are now in the early-childhood business. United Way is now in the early-childhood business. Local communities are now in the early-childhood business.”

“By providing for recompetition every five years, we are guaranteeing … that they understand that it is not their birthright to continue” receiving grants, he said.

But Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., who chairs the subcommittee overseeing early-childhood education, said forcing programs to recompete for their grants every five years “would jeopardize the seamless services that many high-quality Head Start programs with very deep roots in their communities provide to disadvantaged children.”

Rep. Putnam’s amendment was defeated on a 262-161 vote that fell largely along party lines.

And on an issue that received much debate in the last Congress, Republicans railed against Democratic leaders for not allowing the House to consider an amendment that would have allowed Head Start centers to take religion into account in hiring decisions. Democratic leaders, including Mr. Miller, argued the language violated civil rights protections. In 2005, the GOP-controlled House included the faith-based language in the reauthorization measure it approved. The full Senate didn’t act on the reauthorization.

State Coordination

The Head Start bill would provide grants for states to establish Early Learning Councils to bolster collaboration among state agencies on Head Start and other preschool programs. The panels would coordinate professional development and training for Head Start staff members, community outreach, and other activities.

The bill would allow programs with extra capacity to convert regular Head Start slots, which are intended for 4- and 5-year-olds, to Early Head Start slots, which serve children from infancy to age 3. It would also gradually increase the proportion of funding specifically set aside for Early Head Start programs from 10 percent to 20 percent by 2012.

“Everybody talks about getting kids ready for school, but there is an [achievement] gap that can happen between [ages] zero and four or [ages] zero and three,” said Adele B. Robinson, the associate executive director for policy and public affairs at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington. “We’re very pleased with the greater attention to early Head Start in this [bill].”

The measure would also permit Head Start centers to serve more children from families that earn up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level. Right now, children from such families may only make up to 10 percent of an individual center’s enrollment. The bill would raise that to 20 percent, as long as the program could show a need within the community and the center had reached out to families living in poverty.

The legislation also aims to improve teacher quality by requiring half of all Head Start teachers nationwide to hold bachelors’ degrees by 2013. The Senate bill contains similar language, but makes the 50 percent degree attainment level a goal, rather than a requirement.

Vol. 26, Issue 36, Pages 25-26

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