The House Education and Labor Committee last week approved a bipartisan Head Start reauthorization bill that aims to expand eligibility for the federal preschool program, bolster accountability for Head Start grantees, and boost teacher qualifications.
The measure garnered overwhelming support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, passing March 14 on a roll-call vote, 42-1, but not before Democrats and Republicans had an acrimonious debate over an amendment that would have allowed Head Start centers affiliated with religious organizations to take an applicant’s religion into account in hiring.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee approved its own Head Start reauthorization bill last month, with unanimous support. (“Head Start Renewal Advances Amid Debate Over Testing,” Feb. 21, 2007.)
The bills have similar objectives, such as broadening eligibility and improving teacher quality, but in some cases, take very different approaches to those goals. The differences will eventually have to be worked out in a conference committee, after both chambers have approved their respective bills.
For instance, both bills would expand the income criteria for Head Start by increasing eligibility for the program from 100 percent of the federal poverty level to 130 percent. But the House measure would place some restrictions on that requirement to ensure that students from the poorest families were served first; the Senate measure contains no such language.
The House bill would permit Head Start centers to accept students from the higher-income range only if a program had demonstrated community need and made an effort to reach out to families living below the poverty level. Students whose families are living above the federal poverty level could make up only 20 percent of a program’s enrollment.
Some Head Start advocates said the proposed expansion of eligibility is long overdue.
“We’ve been wanting this for 20 years,” said Sarah Greene, the president of the National Head Start Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that advocates for program employees and families. Since the federal poverty level is a national standard, she said, some low-income working families in areas with high minimum wages, such as Boston and Seattle, have been shut out of the program.
Like the Senate bill, the House legislation would require Head Start programs deemed ineffective to recompete for their grants alongside new applicants. But while the Senate bill calls for programs that have serious unresolved problems identified under the current federal monitoring process to submit to recompetition, the House bill would establish a national panel of experts charged with developing a new recompetition system. That system would operate separately from the federal monitoring process.
The House measure would also largely keep in place the current governance structure for local Head Start centers, in which local governing boards must share authority for budgetary, most personnel, and other operating decisions with local policy councils, panels on which the majority of members are Head Start parents.
The Senate bill would shift final decisionmaking authority to the governing boards, with the policy councils serving in an advisory role.
The House bill would also set a requirement for half of Head Start teachers to have bachelor’s degrees by 2013. The language would apply to the federal preschool program nationwide, not to individual programs. All new teachers must have at least an associate’s degree, starting in 2009.
The Senate bill has similar language, but sets the 50 percent level for educational attainment as a goal instead of a requirement.
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., introduced an amendment to the House bill that would have also made the 50 percent provision a goal. The amendment was defeated on a 39-4 roll-call vote.
Helen Blank, a pre-K expert and the director of leadership and public policy at the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, said she hoped the congressional appropriations committees, which allocate money for Head Start, would consider the costs of hiring better-educated teachers and training staff members when allocating funding for the program.
“[The bill] takes a lot of positive steps. There’s going to have to be the resources behind them,” she said.
The religious-employee provision has been debated numerous times in Congress over the past couple of years. The Head Start program was originally scheduled for reauthorization in 2003.
Delegate Luis Fortuño, a Republican from Puerto Rico, introduced the amendment, saying that faith-based organizations needed the language so that they could retain their religious character while competing for grants on an equal footing with secular groups. The provision to allow consideration of employees’ religion was defeated on a roll-call vote, 26-19, along party lines.
Committee Democrats said the amendment amounted to an assault on civil rights.
“Discrimination should not be supported with public funds,” said Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the subcommittee that deals with early-childhood issues. “That’s repugnant, and has been held repugnant by this body for many, many years.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as House Education Panel OKs Reauthorization of Head Start