The education committees of both the House and the Senate expect to begin work early in the new Congress on a long-awaited reauthorization of the federal Head Start program, which is aimed at preparing disadvantaged preschool children for school. Both panels passed bills during the 109th Congress, crafted largely on a bipartisan basis, which called for greater accountability for Head Start grantees and higher professional standards for the program’s teachers.
But the Head Start Act, which was last renewed in 1998 and was due for reauthorization in 2003, has stalled partially because of a provision, included in the House version of the bill at the behest of some conservative Republicans, that would have allowed Head Start centers operated by religious groups to take faith into account in hiring.
Most House Democrats, including Rep. George Miller of California, who became the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee with the start of the 110th Congress last week, voted against the bill because of the provision on religion, calling it a violation of applicants’ civil rights. The version approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee did not include the contentious provision. It is highly unlikely to make it into the new version of the bill now that Democrats control both houses of Congress, Head Start advocates say.
A Senate Democratic aide said the new bill is likely to be similar to the measure that cleared the Senate education panel in 2005 with broad bipartisan support. That bill would have expanded eligibility for Head Start to more low-income families. It also would have increased accountability for Head Start centers, by requiring that programs that receive deficient ratings in their evaluations compete with other applicants for the federal grants.
Both the Senate and the House bills set a goal that 50 percent of Head Start teachers hold bachelor’s degrees. Right now, just over 30 percent of Head Start teachers have such degrees, according to the National Head Start Association, an advocacy group for Head Start staff members, programs, and students, based in Alexandria, Va.
Joel Ryan said that while the organization supports the 50 percent goal, he is worried that Head Start centers could have trouble meeting it, since their teachers are generally paid less than those in public schools. He said the association is working to ensure that the legislation is clear that Head Start centers not be penalized for failing to meet the 50 percent benchmark.
The House version of the legislation also included language aimed at halting the National Reporting System, an accountability measure for Head Start children, until the National Academy of Sciences develops what is deemed a more appropriate system for assessing those children. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the new chairman of the Senate education committee, is likely to seek similar language when his panel considers the bill, a Senate Democratic aide said.
“We’re pleased that there will be bipartisan support for suspending the testing,” Mr. Ryan, the senior legislative strategist for NHSA, said. “It’s unfortunate that tax dollars are being wasted on an assessment that’s flawed.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as Head Start Renewal Back on the Agenda in New Congress