Irate Congressmen Question Proposed Head Start Changes

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Washington--The Reagan Administration's promise to keep the Head Start program in its "social safety net" was nothing more than a "charade," according to one Democratic congressman, who joined other members of the House Subcommittee on Human Resources in sharply attacking proposed policy changes for the program during a routine "oversight" hearing last week.

Representative George Miller of California said that despite a proposed $80-million increase for Head Start, which prepares economically disadvantaged children for school, the Administration's 1983 budget package amounts to an "erosion of resources" for the program.

Modest Gain Offset

He said the modest gain in funding would be offset by the combined effects of inflation, proposed reductions in the federal child-nutrition program, and the elimination of the public-service jobs program which had provided staff for many centers around the country.

"In fact, [Head Start] is on the decline, and this charade ought to stop," Mr. Miller told the Administration's representatives during the hearing. "There are well-intentioned members of Congress who think they are doing something positive by voting on these issues. But there is subterfuge going on ... and somebody is being lied to."

Ike Andrews, Democrat of North Carolina and committee chairman, said, however, that the subcommittee was gratified to learn the Administration had vetoed a recommendation to reduce funding for the program.

But Mr. Andrews and Mr. Miller joined other supporters of Head Start in criticizing Administration budget proposals to curtail Head Start's summer programs--which operate for only six to eight weeks--and to restrict the operating hours of approximately 15 percent of the more than 8,400 Head Start centers nationwide.

In proposing policy changes for a program that has been recognized for its success in meeting the needs of disadvantaged children, Mr. Andrews said, the Administration is aiming "to fix a wheel that no one thinks is broken."

The Head Start program would receive $912 million in fiscal 1983 to serve an estimated 377,300 children age 5 and under. Some $832 million was appropriated for the program in fiscal 1982.

Much of the testimony offered before the subcommittee was in response to a "draft paper" recommending policy changes for the program and prepared in October by the Department of Health and Human Services (hhs), which administers Head Start. That paper, entitled "Head Start: Directions For The Next Three Years," was sent to about 600 youth advocacy groups nationwide, and comments were requested. The responses, hhs officials said during last week's hearing, were not entirely negative toward the proposed changes.

Changes Recommended

In addition to phasing out the summer-only programs, the strategy paper recommended the following changes:

Convert Parent and Child Centers, which provide "comprehensive developmental services to pregnant women and families with children age 3 and under," into regular Head Start programs.

That would mean that more low-income children could be enrolled in the programs but it would not replace social services lost when the centers convert, according to the hhs report.

Limit Head Start programs to eight months out of the year and six hours a day--a change that would affect about 15 percent of the country's programs that now operate 12-month programs, six to eight hours daily.

Place a spending cap on the amount local Head Start centers could spend on "high-cost" children. That figure now varies among from state to state and from center to center because of program designs and the ability of "grantees" to garner nonfederal support.

Streamline the training and technical assistance program, which provides services to bilingual children and staff members responsible for special programs for handicapped children.

Rewrite Head Start regulations so that the requirements are "clear, concise, enforceable, and provide for continuation of all basic ... services currently provided and at the same time reduce staff burden."

'Discussion Draft'

In defending the Administration's proposed policy changes, Dorcas R. Hardy, assistant secretary of the De-partment of Health and Human Services's office of human development services, said the Head Start "strategy paper" was developed as a "discussion draft." It has not been approved as official department policy, she said.

The policy changes are necessary, Ms. Hardy said, if the program is to serve more eligible children; setting some limit on "cost-per-child warrants exploration," she added.

She said a department project is underway "to determine the potential for operating Head Start projects more economically" and the reasons for differing costs among "grantees."

Ms. Hardy said the proposed funding increase for Head Start would be used to improve the program, increase staff salaries, and decrease class size. She said phasing out the "summer-only" program, which has been underway for the past several years, would affect about 8,500 children.

'Slippage' in Gains

Mr. Miller countered that it did not make sense to him to invest money in Head Start children during the year, if there is "slippage" in the gains at the end of a summer without the program.

Vol. 01, Issue 23

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