Law & Courts

Tensions Ease in Head Start Reauthorization

By Michelle R. Davis — May 03, 2005 4 min read
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Despite a record of acrimony and tension between some supporters of the Head Start program and the Bush administration, the leader of a powerful Head Start lobbying group said last week that there is a new spirit of cooperation as Congress reworks the law authorizing the federal preschool program for disadvantaged children.

As supporters marked the 40th anniversary of Head Start with toasts at an April 25 party on Capitol Hill, Sarah M. Greene, the president of the National Head Start Association, said the pending reauthorization of the program now seems to be marked by collaboration.

It’s a surprising message from a group that has repeatedly accused the Bush administration of trying to “dismantle” Head Start and has loudly voiced complaints about proposed changes to the program.

But Ms. Greene said House Republicans have welcomed opinions from her group, which represents Head Start parents and teachers. The Head Start program annually helps prepare more than 900,000 children from low-income families for kindergarten.

“Both sides are talking and eliciting ideas,” Ms. Greene said. “We’re talking calmly.”

However, Jennifer E. McGee, a legislative counsel for the National League of Cities, said Head Start supporters shouldn’t relax just yet. The House has yet to unveil its version of the legislation.

“We’re still nervous,” said Ms. McGee, whose group follows Head Start because some programs are run by city governments.

While the Head Start group still has concerns about some ideas Republicans are pushing, Ms. Greene said the GOP members have been open to suggestions. For example, instead of insisting that state-run prekindergarten programs and Head Start programs carve out common goals, Republicans are saying that they want more cooperation between the two types of programs and are taking recommendations on how to bring that about, Ms. Greene said.

She also said a Republican proposal that would call for each Head Start grantee to compete anew every year for its grant has taken a back seat to devising a method for determining which Head Start grantees are doing a good job and shouldn’t have to compete for funding every year.

Though a Republican proposal to create a pilot program to send Head Start funding to states as a block grant that would allow states to parcel out the money along with their spending on state pre-K programs, instead of the current practic of sending the federal aid directly to grantees, is not “off the table,” Ms. Greene said, GOP members have been willing to discuss alterations to the idea, she said.

Role of GAO Report

But Ms. McGee of the League of Cities said that while there may be retreat on the block grant” idea, her organization sees Republicans favoring other ways for states to mix federal Head Start aid with state and local funds. Such an approach, she said, “could dilute the Head Start program.”

David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, offered a different take on the political dynamics.

He believes, he said, that a March 18 report by the Government Accountability Office that detailed financial abuses and mismanagement in some local Head Start programs and suggested improvements has transformed the debate. (“Oversight of Local Head Start Programs Flawed, GAO Says,” March 23, 2005.)

The GAO report “showed the concerns Republicans have been expressing about incidents of financial abuse and mismanagement in the Head Start program are on target,” Mr. Schnittger wrote in an e-mail April 27.

But Mr. Schnittger said Republicans remain concerned that Head Start lobbying groups are still in part unwilling “to acknowledge the seriousness of the accountability problem that GAO has confirmed exists.” The test, he said, will be when legislation is finally introduced to reauthorize the program, which is likely soon.

During the 108thCongress, the House approved a Head Start bill, but similar legislation failed to make it to the Senate floor.

Whatever the climate for Head Start in the halls of Congress, the National Head Start Association remains at odds with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, which administers the Head Start program.

Most recently, the association has accused the ACF of targeting Head Start grantees and sending inspectors to trump up violations. That’s the latest in a long list of accusations the Head Start group has leveled at the ACF, which in turn has been critical of the management of some local programs.

Need for Evolution?

Helen Blank, the director of leadership and public policy at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, said outstanding issues remain and predicted the reauthorization would “prove very challenging.”

Ms. Blank testified at an April 21 hearing before the House education committee’s Subcommittee on Education Reform on coordinating Head Start and other pre-kindergarten programs.

She cited as a concern the testing of Head Start children to determine what they’re learning, a controversial measure that the Bush administration has already instituted. And the administration also wants Congress to ease current requirements that 2 percent of Head Start’s budget go to training and technical assistance. The administration proposes using that money to add more children.

Even the program’s most ardent supporters, meanwhile, say the Great Society-era program must adapt.

As the program celebrated its four decades of existence last week, Edward Zigler, a Yale University professor emeritus and one of the original planners of Head Start, said it must continue to progress from its roots in 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson championed it as a program to provide poor and minority children with help to boost them to the same level as their middle-class peers as they entered kindergarten.

“There’s got to be an evolution in Head Start,” Mr. Zigler said. “It’s got to change as we get new knowledge.”

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