House Clears Way for Conference on Head Start Bill

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The House last week approved a measure designed to improve and expand the Head Start program, paving the way for a House-Senate conference this week.

The measure, which the House passed by voice vote, would extend the authorization of the popular program for disadvantaged preschoolers until 1998. The Senate passed its companion measure last month. (See Education Week, April 27, 1994.)

There are not many substantial differences in the two bills, and the conference committee's work is expected to proceed smoothly.

The most contentious issues facing the conferees include determining whether all children should be automatically eligible for federally funded meals for which they already qualify based on income and whether grantees should be allowed to construct their own facilities when necessary.

Those provisions, which are strongly backed by the National Head Start Association, are in the Senate bill but not the House bill.

Following the recommendations of a Head Start advisory panel that issued a report earlier this year, both bills would tighten Head Start standards and accountability procedures and link the award of funds earmarked for expansion to a program's past performance.

Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said those steps signal a "political green light'' to shore up program quality. But the real test, he said, will be in the administration of the program.

Both bills would also bolster support for Head Start transition and collaboration grants.

Birth-to-3 Program

Under both versions, from 3 percent to 5 percent of Head Start funds would be set aside between 1995 and 1998 to phase in a new grant program to provide services for pregnant women and families with children age 3 and under.

Initiatives previously funded under two programs serving that age group--the Parent-Child Centers and the Comprehensive Child-Develoment Projects--would receive priority for funding over the next three years.

The bills direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in consultation with a group of experts, to develop guidelines for the birth-to-3 program by Sept. 30. A grant announcement and performance standards would have to be published by Dec. 30.

Those steps were added in part to address concerns raised by the Head Start association, which, like the advisory panel, had urged that before the launching of the program an expert task force should be convened to study and set standards for it.

Vol. 13, Issue 32

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