Head Start Bill Jump-Starts Debate On Program's Future

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Legislation supporting most of President Bush's vision for Head Start was formally introduced in the House last week, kicking off what is likely to be an intense debate in Congress about the future of the nearly 40-year-old preschool program for poor children.

The proposed School Readiness Act of 2003—sponsored by Reps. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., and John Boehner, R-Ohio—would give some governors the option of having federal money under the program flow to the state level instead of directly to local Head Start grantees. Administration officials say those "demonstration projects" would allow states to better blend Head Start with their own preschool efforts.

The first hearing on the bill is scheduled for June 10 by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The Senate wants to discuss this bill before introducing its own.

The proposal says a "limited" number of states would be allowed to take advantage of the new option, but it does not specify how many. To be approved, states would have to already have in place preschool systems with measurable standards. Eligible states would also be barred from cutting funding for their existing programs.

Head Start advocates, however, have called the state option a block grant that would "dismantle" Head Start.

Members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee also inserted an unexpected provision that Mr. Bush had not included in his plan: requiring all Head Start providers to compete for renewal of their grants every five years.

"There will be no more grantees for life," said Steve Barbour, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees Head Start.

Currently, more than 912,000 preschoolers are served by 1,570 grantees under the program.

Surprisingly, the bill—which would reauthorize Head Start through 2008 and increase its authorized annual funding by $17 million, to a total of $6.87 billion per year—would not move Head Start from the HHS Department into the Department of Education. President Bush first suggested that move during his 2000 election campaign, but advocates for the program have bitterly opposed it.

Wade F. Horn, the HHS assistant secretary for children and families, said that the president was most concerned about improving coordination with state preschool programs and strengthening educational outcomes for children, and that "there may be different ways" to accomplish those goals.

But Joel Ryan, the government affairs director for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association, said the fact that the bill recommends keeping the program—which also delivers health, dental, nutrition, and other social services—in the HHS Department doesn't make him feel any better about the bill.

"I think that the block grant is a much more serious issue," he said. "They put a worse poison in the potion. If they think this is going to pass, they have another think coming."

Last week, Democrats on the House committee were also quick to criticize the Republicans' plan. In a statement, Rep. George Miller of California, the committee's ranking minority member, called the reauthorization bill "a blueprint for dismantling one of the best early-childhood-education programs in our country."

In states that apply for the "demonstration project" option, "Head Start will become a slush fund that governors will use to shore up their sagging state budgets," he predicted.

Raising Teacher Quality

The Republicans' reauthorization plan would also continue efforts to improve the skills of Head Start teachers. The 1998 reauthorization required that 50 percent of Head Start teachers have associate's degrees—a goal that has been reached.

This new bill would require all teachers in the program to reach at least that level, and half of them would be required to have bachelor's degrees.

Amy Wilkins, the director of the Trust for Early Education, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, praised that provision, calling it a "milestone in Head Start improvement efforts."

Under the proposal, Head Start providers would also concentrate more on pre-literacy and pre-math goals for children, making the expectations for classroom activities in Head Start similar to those included in the president's Reading First and Early Reading First programs.

However, changes are not being proposed to the other comprehensive services provided by Head Start.

The bill's sponsors acknowledged that there is research showing that Head Start children make cognitive gains while in the program. But a "readiness gap" still remains, they said, with Head Start children lagging behind national averages when they enter kindergarten.

Under the bill, Head Start centers would no longer be judged on "arbitrary" performance measures for children, such as knowing 10 letters, according to Parker Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the House Education and Workforce committee. Instead, they would be evaluated based on a more "straightforward system" that focuses on school readiness skills, the summary of the bill says.

Vol. 22, Issue 38, Page 20

Published in Print: May 28, 2003, as Head Start Bill Jump-Starts Debate On Program's Future
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