Head Start Brouhaha Now Moves To Senate

By Linda Jacobson — August 06, 2003 3 min read
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Senate Democrats have unveiled their plan for a stronger, more academically focused Head Start. But the bill, sponsored by Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, says nothing about giving states more control over Head Start money.

An experiment with state control, meanwhile, is the distinguishing feature of a Republican-sponsored bill that narrowly passed the House late last month. In that version of what has become a fiercely contested reauthorization of the federal preschool program, eight states would be chosen for a “demonstration project,” which the GOP says would help states coordinate Head Start with state- run preschool programs.

Most current providers running Head Start centers, however, would not lose their federal funding if the House measure, called the School Readiness Act, were to become law.

Both the approved House bill and the Democratic Senate alternative aim to increase credentials for Head Start teachers. But the Senate bill also would increase wages, which authors of the bill say would encourage highly qualified teachers to stay with the program.

Introduced last week, the Democrats’ proposed Head Start School Readiness and Coordination Act also would expand the program to serve more children.

The almost 40-year-old program, which costs close to $7 billion annually, now serves more than 900,000 3- and 4-year-olds. In addition, about 48,000 infants and toddlers are enrolled in Early Head Start.

“We have every reason to believe that cooler heads will prevail in determining what is best for the 1 million low-income children who depend on Head Start,” Sarah Greene, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association, said in a press release following the 217-216 vote in the House. In her view, she made clear, the cooler heads are in the Senate.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former U.S. secretary of education and governor of Tennessee, introduced his own Head Start legislation last week. His bill would involve states by having governors choose Head Start “centers of excellence,” but would not send money to the state level.

HHS Letter ‘Clarified’

Democrats in the House fought hard to defeat the GOP bill, with member after member asserting that the GOP plan would “dismantle” the program and eventually leave children without services.

The “demonstration projects,” Democrats allege, would allow governors to divert Head Start funds to unrelated purposes during tough economic times. And they say there’s no guarantee that states ultimately approved for the proposed option would be required to meet Head Start’s performance standards.

But Republicans contend safeguards in the House bill would keep states from spending Head Start dollars on other needs. In fact, the bill would require states to increase what they are currently spending on early- childhood programs in order to qualify for one of the eight slots.

Republicans say their plan would reduce the “readiness gap” between needy and better-off children by placing a greater emphasis on academic learning. Because so many states now run their own preschool programs alongside Head Start, programs open to children of all income levels, Head Start children get little advantage now, the Republicans say.

On a related issue, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a “clarification” last month of a May 8 letter that had warned Head Start employees against using federal funds to lobby against the Republican plan.

The original letter enraged the NHSA, which filed a federal lawsuit charging that the Bush administration was threatening employees’ right to free speech. The lawsuit has been dropped.

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