Senate Committee Backs Head Start Plan

By Linda Jacobson — November 05, 2003 3 min read
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By setting new learning expectations for children and requiring more teachers to earn college degrees, a compromise Head Start bill passed by a Senate committee last week includes many of the changes Republicans wanted this year.

But the bill, passed unanimously on Oct. 22 by the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, would also increase funding for the program, expand eligibility levels to include more children and keep control over the preschool program at the federal level.

Whether to allow a handful of states more authority over Head Start money—a proposal included in a bill already passed by the House—is likely to be heavily debated in future negotiations this fall.

Responding to recent concerns over the salaries of some executives in charge of Head Start programs, the Senate bill also stipulates that directors of nonprofit agencies receiving federal Head Start money could not make more than the $171,900 a year that Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson earns.

The HHS secretary leads the federal department that oversees the federal preschool program for disadvantaged children.

In another effort to make Head Start grantees more accountable, the bill would also require all but the highest-performing programs to compete again for grants every five years.

The measure increases authorized spending for Head Start from its current level of $6.8 billion to $7.2 billion in fiscal 2005. The plan now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

In what Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the committee, called “a very aggressive academic component,” the bill would establish new educational standards for children in the program, such as requiring them to know the alphabet, recognize numbers, and be able to measure length, weight, and time.

Those standards would not be implemented, however, until the National Academy of Sciences reviewed and made recommendations about appropriate expectations of 3- and 4-year-olds, according to the compromise agreement. In the days before the committee vote, Head Start advocates tried to get the academic goals dropped.

“The rigid list of outcomes ... ignores the fact that early- childhood education is a field that is constantly evolving; we should not be frozen in place by formal legislative language that is far more detailed and restrictive than is necessary,” says a written statement from three researchers that was distributed by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association.

Unlike the House plan, which passed in July, the Senate proposal does not include a demonstration program that would allow eight states to take control over Head Start funds—a plan that Democrats and advocacy groups have bitterly opposed.

Seeking Alignment

But the Senate bill would require more collaboration between Head Start and state- financed prekindergarten programs, and it calls for state schools superintendents and local education agencies to work with Head Start when drawing up school readiness standards and classroom curricula.

“The alignment with K-12 was something all of us wanted,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking minority member on the committee.

Still, Secretary Thompson issued a statement following the committee’s action saying that the Bush administration “prefers the approach in the House bill.”

Like the House bill, the Senate plan calls for higher teacher credentials; it would require all Head Start teachers to have at least associate’s degrees by 2009 and 50 percent to have a bachelor’s degrees by fall 2010. The bill also would set a 2007 deadline for all teaching assistants in Head Start classrooms to have a child-development-associate credential or be enrolled in a degree program.

“This bill reaffirms the Head Start program’s primary purpose: helping to ensure that low-income children have an opportunity to enter school ready to learn with the rest of their peers,” Sen. Gregg said in a statement.

Republicans in the House say their bill would also address the salary issue and prevent financial abuse. Giving eight states authority over Head Start money would allow them to discover and correct financial problems quickly, according to a staff document prepared for Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee.

The House bill also calls for unannounced visits to Head Start programs by monitors, and for using outside contractors to conduct those visits in order to reduce conflicts of interest.

Assistant Editor Erik W. Robelen contributed to this report.

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