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Head Start Imbroglio a Struggle For Hearts, Minds, Votes

By Linda Jacobson — June 18, 2003 6 min read
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The campaign was impressive, both in the planning and execution, and quickly effective in knocking out various objectives. Drawing on tactics gleaned from past battles, those in charge chose their ammunition well and targeted it accurately.

The target, in this case, was not Baghdad, but rather tenets of a Bush administration overhaul of Head Start that advocates for the federal preschool program saw coming miles away. The weapons? Sharply worded press releases highlighting research findings meant to subdue the opponents.

So far, the strategy seems to be having some of its desired effects.The National Head Start Association, which has been leading the fight against the Bush plan to allow states more control over Head Start funding, has in the past repelled efforts to give states such grants or otherwise significantly change the program’s structure. Head Start provides education, health, nutrition, and other social services to more than 900,000 needy preschool children.

And the group quickly won the battle this year to keep Head Start in the Department of Health and Human Services, instead of moving it to the Department of Education, as President Bush desired. That victory, said Joel Ryan, the government-affairs director for the Alexandria, Va.-based NHSA, “shows you the power of advocacy, of people speaking up.”

But the state-option plan, he said, “is probably the most serious threat to the program.”

PR Firm Hired

So the association—a 14,000-member group that represents Head Start families and staff members—decided to appeal to public opinion to help persuade Mr. Bush and congressional Republicans to back off the block grant idea.

The NHSA hired the Hastings Group, a Washington- based public relations company, to help organize its campaign against the House bill. Called the School Readiness Act of 2003, the proposal was introduced by Republican Reps. Michael N. Castle of Delaware and John A. Boehner of Ohio.

The PR firm developed and launched SaveHeadStart.org, a Web site filled with the latest press releases on what the association calls an effort by the Bush administration to “dismantle” the popular 38-year-old program.

And the company organized a conference call in Ohio—Rep. Boehner’s state—to “warn” Head Start staff and parents that the bill would “wipe out the 72 local” programs in the state. Mr. Boehner, the chairman of the House education committee, retaliated with a statement that accused the NHSA of being “focused on creating confusion.”

And when administration officials warned Head Start staff members in a letter not to use federal funds for political activities, the NHSA threatened legal action and then followed through last week with a federal lawsuit alleging that the warning violated the First Amendment rights of teachers and parents.

“Virtual marches,” in which advocates for the program will be able to bombard members of Congress with e-mails and faxes, are also in the works.

“They are not going to be happy about it,” Mr. Ryan said, promising more protest activities in the future.

Administration officials, however, are not sitting idly by. The HHS Department issued a report last week showing that the gap on school readiness skills between Head Start children and average preschoolers is not narrowed significantly by the program. The report also points to the increased state-level coordination that Mr. Bush’s plan promises as the best way to reduce this gap.

Sarah Greene, the president of the Head Start association, countered that the report was a “stale rehash” of old data and a “blatant attempt to advance a political agenda.”

Wade F. Horn, the HHS assistant secretary for children and families, and Windy M. Hill, the agency’s associate commissioner for the Head Start Bureau, were also expected to visit Head Start classrooms in the next few days to show off examples of how, in their view, the Bush plan would improve services.

Reverberations

There was evidence last week that the NHSA’s drumbeat has been heard by Republicans in the House.

The Castle-Boehner bill, passed by the House Subcommittee on Education Reform June 12, was rewritten to include an eight-state cap for the block grant option. (“Head Start Advocates Sue Over HHS Warning,” News in Brief, this issue.)

And in exchange for having the added flexibility granted under the bill, states would also have to match 50 percent of the federal Head Start funds they receive. Language in the bill was also strengthened to make sure states that received the block grants would continue to follow Head Start standards.

But even with that cap, opponents of the plan were not ready to claim victory.

“I don’t expect us to be popping any champagne corks soon,” Mr. Ryan said. A critique of the revised version, prepared by the Democrats on the House committee whose amendment to eliminate the block grants failed—labeled the eight-state limit a “risky experiment.”

Mr. Ryan added, “It doesn’t matter if it’s 50 states or eight states, block granting will weaken the quality of the Head Start program.”

On the Senate side, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who sits on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has already indicated that he’s not too fond of Mr. Bush’s plan or the original version of the House bill.

At a recent town hall meeting in his district, he said he has “strong reservations about a proposal to ‘block grant’ Head Start money to the states.”

“The current federal-to-local partnership is working well,” he said, “so why change it? Basically, ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ ”

Battles Over Block Grants

The sharp opposition to President Bush’s Head Start plan from the NHSA and other early-childhood- education groups can be compared to other moments in recent political history when the GOP attempted to give states more control over popular programs.

Sen. Roberts, while speaking at the town hall meeting in Olathe, Kan., recalled a 1995 effort by congressional Republicans to retool the federal food stamp program as a block grant—a plan that Democrats and advocates for the poor said would leave states with less money for nutrition programs and create 50 different sets of food stamp eligibility guidelines.

“I opposed that proposal because the states didn’t want the food stamp program,” Sen. Roberts said, “they just wanted the money.”

It was during that same period that newly ascendant House Republicans—in their “Contract with America"—wanted to block-grant several child-nutrition programs to the states, including the school lunch program.

The plan touched off an outcry from Democrats and advocacy groups, and an arcane debate over whether Republicans were in fact cutting—or increasing—funding for the program.

Later, Republicans decided to keep the school lunch program in Washington.

Head Start—a legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty—is not the only social program that President Bush currently wants to hand over to the states in some way. For example, he also is proposing to replace the “Section 8" low-income- housing program with a block grant, beginning in 2005.

The comparisons falter, however, when it comes to the 1996 welfare-reform law, which transformed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program from a centralized federal program of public assistance to a state-managed block grant called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

“In the context of AFDC, surely this was a failed program,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior staff lawyer at the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy. With Head Start, he added, “there is not a parallel argument here.”

In fact, Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that the same “social progressives” who want to maintain flexibility in the states over TANF are now up in arms over the Head Start plan.

“It seems they’ve gotten themselves into an inconsistent position,” he said. The distinction, he said, shows that “Head Start is so sacred.”

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