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War Over Words

The federal Head Start program helps shape young minds before they get to kindergarten. But now the program's main advocacy group says Head Start's overseers are doing a little mind-molding themselves.

A top federal Head Start official sparked the brouhaha with a May 8 letter cautioning local Head Start programs not to use federal money for political activities and warning program employees to evaluate their actions.

The legislation governing Head Start, which helps prepare 912,000 disadvantaged children for school, is in the midst of reauthorization. The National Head Start Association, local staff members, and some parents are among those lobbying against changes offered by the Bush administration.

In the letter, Associate Commissioner Windy M. Hill of the Department of Health and Human Services' Head Start Bureau told local Head Start workers they are governed by the federal Hatch Act, which limits the political activities of some federal employees. In an interview, she said her letter was prompted by an e-mail from an advocacy group, which she declined to name, that spoke of staff members' helping parents lobby against the Bush plan.

"If information will be or has been disseminated pursuant to a request from an advocacy group, that dissemination would constitute promotion of lobbying, which is a prohibited use of federal funds," Ms. Hill wrote.

On May 28, the National Head Start Association's president, Sarah M. Greene, fired back with a letter to Ms. Hill, objecting to the "effect of chilling the exercise of free expression" by local programs and staff.

That same day, at an NHCA conference in New York City, NHSA chairman Ron Herndon, said the administration was attempting to "twist and contort the federal laws" in an attempt to "silence the critics of its proposal."

The administration and Head Start advocates are clashing over proposed changes to the program, particularly the idea of channeling federal Head Start money to states rather than directly to local Head Start operations.

Ms. Hill said her intention was just to inform, but Mr. Herndon said the administration was trying "to avoid a full and open debate about its plan."

Stay tuned: Mr. Herndon said that if Bush officials failed to clarify the May 8 comments this week, the NHSA might take legal action.

—Michelle R. Davis

Vol. 22, Issue 39, Page 21

Published in Print: June 4, 2003, as Federal File

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