Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted the percent cap on the number of Head Start students in any individual program whose parents may earn above the federal poverty level.
Congress today gave final approval to a long-awaited measure to renew the Head Start preschool program that would seek to increase accountability for grantees, make more families eligible, and eliminate a controversial test administered to students.
The reauthorization has been pending since 2003. The House passed a compromise agreed upon by a committee of House and Senate lawmakers by a vote of 381-36. The Senate approved the same measure a few hours later by a vote of 95-0. President Bush is expected to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
Lawmakers from both parties had warm words for the bipartisan process that went into crafting the final measure.
“We do our best work, especially in education, when we work in a bipartisan way,” said Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing early childhood education during floor debate.
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, commended language in the bill aimed at ratcheting up accountability for Head Start grantees. Rep. McKeon, who was chairman of the committee until Democrats regained control of Congress with last year’s elections, said the bill would “better protect taxpayers and ensure funds are being used to help prepare disadvantaged children.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said the reauthorization “applies the lessons learned from the past with the new knowledge of child development and early education to enable Head Start to be even more successful in the years ahead.”
The legislation would require ineffective programs to compete for their grants alongside new applicants. And it would prohibit any local Head Start program official from earning more money than an assistant secretary at a federal agency, who are currently paid as much as $168,000 annually.
Striking ‘the Right Balance’
Hearings on Head Start in both the House and Senate in 2005 spotlighted fiscal mismanagement at some local programs, including reports of excessive salaries for some Head Start directors.
The measure would also drop the National Reporting System, a controversial test given to all 4- and 5-year-old Head Start pupils. Although the Bush administration supported the assessments, a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, questioned their efficacy.
To improve program quality, the measure calls for half of all Head Start teachers nationally to hold bachelor’s degrees by 2013, but it would not penalize any program that did not meet that requirement.
The bill would broaden Head Start’s income-eligibility requirements by permitting families that make up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $26,800 for a family of four, to participate in the program. In the past, the program only served children whose parents’ incomes were at or below the federal poverty level, or $20,600 for a family of four. But to keep the program’s focus on children in poverty, the bill places a 45 percent cap on the number of Head Start students in any individual program whose parents may earn above the federal poverty level.
That language “strikes the right balance,” Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., said on the House floor on Nov. 14. He said that the high cost of living in his Chicago district makes it difficult for some families earning incomes just above the poverty-line to afford high-quality preschool.
Rep. Davis also applauded his fellow lawmakers for “preserving the anti-discrimination history of Head Start.” Republicans had sought to include language in the bill that would permit Head Start programs operated by faith-based organizations to take an applicant’s religion into account in hiring. That language was ultimately left out of the bill.
The bill would boost budget authorization levels for the program, which was funded at $6.8 billion in fiscal 2007. Under the new authorization, Head Start could receive up to $7.3 billion in fiscal 2008, $7.6 billion in fiscal 2009, and $7.9 billion in fiscal 2010. The bill requires that 40 percent of new Head Start funds be set aside to improve program quality, including boosting salaries for Head Start teachers.
The bill also aims to clarify responsibilities for the management of local Head Start programs, while leaving the programs’ current governing structure intact. Head Start programs are governed by two separate panels: governing boards, which are directly responsible for the federal Head Start grants, and policy councils, on which the majority of members are Head Start parents.
The bill makes clear that while both panels share responsibility for governing Head Start centers, including budgetary and personnel decisions, the governing boards retain ultimate authority over hiring or firing Head Start directors and other top-level employees.
The language represents a compromise between differing House and Senate versions of the bill approved earlier this year. Some lawmakers were concerned that the shared management structure creates confusion and inefficiency, since neither panel is clearly accountable for decisions. The Senate had included language in its bill that would shift most decision-making authority to the governing boards, with the policy councils taking on more of an advisory role.
But some advocates worried that the language in the earlier Senate-passed version could diminish parents’ sense of ownership in the programs, which they argued is vital to Head Start’s mission. They encouraged lawmakers to maintain the shared governing structure.
Sarah Greene, the president of the National Head Start Association, an advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Va., said serving on a policy council helps pave the way for future parent involvement.
“Parents all over the country tell us that this experience leads to them being on school boards and on the [Parent Teacher Association],” said Ms. Greene, whose groups backs the compromise bill.