Head Start Measure Expected to Launch New Era for Program
Lawmakers are hailing a long-awaited measure to renew the federal Head Start preschool program as an example of the kind of legislation that can emerge from bipartisan consensus and compromise. But crafting the reauthorization of the Head Start Act, which has been pending since 2003, wasn’t always harmonious.
“This process in working on Head Start has shown Congress at its best,” Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees early-childhood education, said during a floor debate this month. “This is one of our better days, [and] one of our better bills. ... We’ve had differences. We resolved those differences.”
The bill, approved overwhelmingly by both the House and the Senate on Nov. 14, seeks to address concerns about mismanagement in some local Head Start programs by bolstering accountability requirements for grantees, improve program quality in part by requiring more teachers to get bachelor’s degrees, and expand eligibility for the program by raising household income limits.
President Bush and some GOP leaders in Congress initially envisioned a very different direction for the 42-year-old program, which serves more than 900,000 children nationwide. They wanted to create a block-grant pilot project that would have shifted much of the authority over Head Start program funds to the states. They also sought to permit faith-based agencies running Head Start programs to take Head Start job applicants’ religion into account. Those ideas were ultimately rejected in Congress.
The House passed a compromise agreed upon by a committee of House and Senate conferees by a vote of 381-36. The Senate approved the same measure a few hours later by a vote of 95-0. President Bush was expected to sign the bill despite reports that he has reservations about the failure to include the religious provision.
Head Start advocates were pleased with the outcome.
“The four years of working on this, while they were long and sometimes difficult and sometimes frustrating, [resulted in a bill] that will improve opportunities for young children,” said Danielle Ewen, the director of child-care and early-education policy at the Washington-based Center on Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit organization that is an advocate for low-income people. “Maybe it takes four years to come up with something that actually works.”
President Bush sought to put his stamp on the program even before he made it to the White House. As a candidate in 2000, he floated a proposal to move the Head Start program from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education. The president proposed the first steps toward that in a budget request, but the idea never went very far in Congress.
‘Reservoir of Support’
In 2003, the House approved, by a vote of 217-216, a measure that would have established a pilot program giving up to eight states significantly more flexibility in administering Head Start funds.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who at the time was the ranking Democrat on the House education committee and is now its chairman, called that bill “a blueprint for dismantling” Head Start. The reauthorization stalled because of the disagreement; Republican supporters of the block-grant proposal eventually dropped it.
Also highly contentious was language that would have permitted Head Start programs operated by religious organizations to take applicants’ faith into account in hiring. The provision was included in a Head Start reauthorization bill approved by the House in 2005.
Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee at the time, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who was then the ranking member and is now the committee’s chairman, did not allow their version of the Head Start bill, which did not include the religious-hiring language, to move to the Senate floor in 2005 or 2006, in part because they wanted to keep the faith-based provision out of the final bill.
When the Democrats took control of Congress after the 2006 elections, the religion provision was defeated both in the House Education and Labor Committee and on the House floor.
“We had some pretty serious disagreements about the future of Head Start,” Rep. Miller acknowledged in an interview this month. But he said he was always optimistic lawmakers could reach a bipartisan consensus, since the program “has a reservoir of support” in Congress.
Although the measure aims to renew Head Start for the next five years, lawmakers may revisit the issue of early-childhood education sooner. Nearly every Democratic presidential candidate has put forth a proposal to broaden prekindergarten options. For example, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has proposed a $10 billion federal program to expand pre-K, with the goal of extending access to all 4-year-olds.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the top Republican on the House education committee, commended language in the bill aimed at ratcheting up accountability for Head Start grantees. Rep. McKeon, who was chairman of the committee until early 2007, said the bill would “better protect taxpayers and ensure funds are being used to help prepare disadvantaged children.”
The bill would require ineffective programs to compete for their grants alongside new applicants.
The measure would also drop the National Reporting System, a controversial test given to all 4- and 5-year-old Head Start pupils. Although the Bush administration supported the assessments, which focus on vocabulary, letter recognition, and early-mathematics skills, a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, questioned their efficacy.
To improve the quality of Head Start programs, the measure calls for half of all Head Start teachers nationally to hold bachelor’s degrees by 2013, but it would not penalize any program that did not meet that requirement.
The bill would broaden Head Start’s income-eligibility requirements by permitting families that make up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $26,800 for a family of four, to participate in the program. In the past, the program only served children whose parents’ incomes were at or below the federal poverty level, or $20,600 for a family of four.
But to keep the program’s focus on children in poverty, the bill places a 45 percent cap on the number of Head Start students in any individual program whose families earn above the federal poverty level.
That language “strikes the right balance,” Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., said on the House floor on Nov. 14. He said the high cost of living in his Chicago district makes it difficult for some families earning incomes just above the poverty line to afford high-quality preschool.
The bill also aims to clarify responsibilities for the management of local Head Start programs, while leaving the programs’ governing structures intact. Head Start programs are run by two separate panels: governing boards, which are directly responsible for the federal Head Start grants, and policy councils, on which the majority of members are parents of participating pupils.
The bill makes clear that while both panels share responsibility for governing Head Start centers, including budgetary and personnel decisions, the governing boards retain ultimate authority over hiring or firing Head Start directors and other top-level employees.
Sarah Greene, the president of the National Head Start Association, an advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Va., said serving on a policy council helps pave the way for future parent involvement.
“Parents all over the country tell us that this experience leads to them being on school boards and on the PTA,” said Ms. Greene, whose group backs the compromise bill.
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