The House approved a bill to reauthorize the Head Start preschool program last week, amid a ferocious debate over an amendment to allow faith-based service providers to make employment decisions based on religion.
On Sept. 22, the House voted 231-184 in favor of the School Readiness Act. Although the measure was a bipartisan creation and was passed unanimously by the House education committee in May, many Democrats voted against the bill because it included the religious-hiring amendment. That amendment was approved on a 220-196 vote.
Republicans said the language was necessary to allow faith-based groups that provide Head Start services to retain protections given to them in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on religion, among other factors, but permits churches and other religious groups to make religion-based employment decisions in some circumstances.
Only a handful of federal programs, including Head Start, bar faith-based groups from discriminating if they receive federal dollars. The existing law authorizing the Head Start program, which helps prepare disadvantaged 4- and 5-year-olds for kindergarten, says grantees may not hire teachers or other staff members on the basis of religion.
“For many faith-based organizations, it is their very nature to offer help. … Yet when they seek to participate in federally funded programs, they must forfeit the very identity that drives them to serve,” said Rep John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Many Democrats and advocacy groups that favor strict church-state boundaries have balked at the amendment, saying it could result in firings by religious groups that run local Head Start programs and have workers of other religions.
“The idea of discrimination is not something we should be teaching our children,” Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., said on the House floor on Sept. 22.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has also passed a bill to reauthorize Head Start, without the language on religion, but the bill has yet to make it to the Senate floor.
The School Readiness Act as passed by the House would reauthorize through 2011 the $7 billion-a-year Head Start program, which serves about 900,000 children annually. The rest of the bill is largely uncontroversial. Lawmakers tried to reauthorize the program during the last Congress, without success.
This time around, Republicans dropped a push for a block grant program that would have sent federal Head Start funds to states on a pilot basis for them to distribute, and to use with other state preschool programs if they wished rather than channeling the money directly to program grantees. The 2005 bill instead calls for more coordination between Head Start and state-run prekindergarten programs.
It also calls for increased monitoring of grantees by the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the program. Local Head Start programs have been hit by reports of mismanagement and inefficiencies in recent years. The bill would also make it easier for federal officials to cut off grantees that weren’t properly managing their programs.
“This lack of program integrity and financial accountability is unacceptable,” Mr. Boehner said last week.
The House bill would also force poorly run Head Start programs to compete with other providers when their grants expire. Programs that are operating efficiently and meet other standards will not have to recompete for their grants.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2005 edition of Education Week as House OKs Head Start Reauthorization