The Bush administration’s plan to hand the states more control over Head Start, contained in the president’s proposed new budget, is receiving sharp criticism from many Head Start advocates, who contend that the proposal would mean a gradual “dismantling” of the 38-year-old preschool program for poor children.
According to documents from the Department of Health and Human Services, the shift’s intent is to allow states to better link Head Start with existing preschool programs. Because Head Start funding is now distributed directly to community-based agencies running Head Start programs, the agency says, the program “cannot be easily coordinated and aligned with other early-childhood services by the states.”
“By engaging states in this process, we can do more to ensure that states are ready,” said Windy M. Hill, the associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau. “We know from the research what is important for children’s later success. That won’t change.”
President Bush’s fiscal 2004 budget request includes the proposed Head Start changes. That budget, released Feb. 3, proposes a $2.23 trillion spending plan for all areas of the federal government, including $53.1 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Education. (“Bush Proposes Ed. Funding Hike—Maybe,” this issue)
But many other federal agencies, such as the Health and Human Services Department, receive money for education-related programs as well. Highlights of the budget plans for some of those agencies follow.
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
AND HUMAN SERVICES
President Bush’s Head Start intentions, including his suggestion to move the program from HHS to the Education Department, drew mixed reactions last week.
States interested in a greater role in Head Start would be required to submit plans to the federal government showing how they would: help children acquire early literacy skills; develop an accountability program; serve at least as many 3- and 4-year-olds as are currently being served; provide teacher professional development; and blend those efforts with other state and federally financed preschool initiatives.
Some observers said that better coordination between the array of child-development programs for young children was a worthy goal.
“I think there’s merit in the proposal, after watching Head Start be so distant and disconnected from child-care developments in California over the years,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., added that the proposal “opens up some exciting opportunities” and gives Congress the chance to “build the Head Start of the future” by allocating more money to help Head Start teachers earn four-year degrees.
But he said that without a significant funding hike, states—many of them already cutting education spending—would be more likely to water down services.
Mr. Bush’s budget calls for a $148 million increase in spending for Head Start over what he has called for in fiscal 2003, which would push the total budget for the program to $6.8 billion and enrollment to 923,000 children.
Critics said that hike would be barely enough to cover a cost-of-living increase. They also argue that under state control, Head Start could lose its identity.
“The president’s extreme proposal to dismantle one of the federal government’s most successful programs is negligent and without support from Head Start families,” Sarah M. Greene, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association, said in a statement. “Leaving no child behind should mean expanding Head Start to serve more children, not removing the very things that make it work.”
The proposal also states that fiscal 2004 would be a transition year in which HHS would continue to manage the program, with the Education Department taking full responsibility in fiscal 2005.
Many advocates of the program maintained that the proposed move was an attempt to give Head Start a narrow academic focus, instead of its current comprehensive approach, which includes health, dental, nutrition, and other social services.
“Most parents have a more holistic appreciation of their child’s growth than mechanical policy wonks,” Mr. Fuller said.
But Ms. Hill of the Head Start Bureau counters that the program’s mission would not change.
“Show me a program that stopped doing comprehensive services when they started focusing on language and literacy,” she said. “I’ve yet to find that program.”
Advocates for young children also criticized Mr. Bush’s budget for not including a funding increase for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, frozen at $4.8 billion, and for trying to eliminate smaller programs to encourage higher quality early-childhood education.
DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
Included within the Department of Agriculture’s $74 billion in the president’s proposed budget are increases for program areas such as food safety, nutrition, and food assistance.
The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection System, which monitors meat and poultry, has come under fire for failures to catch bacterial outbreaks, among other problems. School administrators were dismayed last year when 1.8 million pounds of turkey slated for schools came from a supply tainted with potentially dangerous bacteria. Some of the meat was served to students.
Under the budget plan, funding for the USDA’S food-inspection program would increase to $899 million, nearly $42 million over last year’s request and a 15 percent increase since 2001.
Mr. Bush’s budget also includes $42.9 billion for food-assistance programs, a $1.7 billion increase over his fiscal 2003 plan. But no significant increase was included for several programs that serve children, including the National School Lunch Program
“The president’s budget takes three steps backward and one forward, but the nation needs improved investments in school meals, after-school and summer food, and other supports in these hard economic times,” James D. Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington advocacy group, said in a statement.
Critics say there also appears to be a move toward more stringent eligibility requirements in programs such as free and reduced-price school lunches. Some, like Mr. Weill, say that the new process would discourage parents and children who need it from using the program.
The president did ask for a record $4.77 billion for the Women, Infants, and Children program, which provides extra food to poor mothers and children.
DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is under the Department of the Interior, has a school construction and repair fund to rebuild and replace BIA schools, many of which have fallen into serious disrepair. President Bush campaigned in 2000 on a pledge to retain that fund and has “been true to his word,” said Verner V. Duus, an Indian- affairs consultant with the National Indian Education Association.
Mr. Bush allocated $292.6 million to the fund—equal to last year’s proposed level, Mr. Duus said. Back when the fund was started under the Clinton administration, “we were lucky if it had $40 million in it,” Mr. Duus said.
DEPARTMENT OF LABOR
Worried about the stagnant economy that has hit many under-25 job-seekers hard, some groups are critical of cuts to youth-training programs within the Department of Labor.
The agency’s proposed $56.2 billion budget for 2004 includes a phaseout of the Youth Opportunity Grant program. The five-year program was a Clinton administration initiative. It provides money for poor communities to offer academic training, college tours, mentors, and jobs for young adults, among other benefits.
Other programs, however, such as the Job Corps, which helps students get increased education and vocational opportunities, are in line for slight increases. In the president’s new budget, the Job Corps was allocated $1.56 billion, an increase of $34 million over the 2003 request.
ARTS AND HUMANITIES ENDOWMENTS
Included in the $152 million proposal for the National Endowment for the Humanities is $25 million in new money for the agency’s “We the People” program, designed to strengthen the study and understanding of American history and culture. In launching the initiative last year, President Bush said that American students had only a passing knowledge of their own country’s history.
If the funding is approved by Congress, it will go for expansion of NEH programs that provide humanities teachers new opportunities to study American-history texts. The money would also be used for model curriculum projects, to improve course offerings in American history, culture, and civics, and to start an annual National History Bee.
Budget data for specific programs for the National Endowment for the Arts, which includes arts education programs, was unavailable last week, according to spokeswoman Ann Puderbaugh.
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Mr. Bush is proposing $200 million in spending within the National Science Foundation for the Math and Science Partnership. The program strives to strengthen K-12 education and student performance in those subjects, as well as to improve pre-K education.
That amount equals the president’s 2003 budget request. In 2002, the program received $160 million in appropriations.