Assessment

Bush Signs Head Start, With Qualms

By Alyson Klein — December 13, 2007 3 min read
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President Bush last week signed into law a long-awaited bill reauthorizing Head Start for five years, but he criticized the measure for terminating a system of tests for children in the federal preschool program, and because it does not include language that would permit religiously affiliated Head Start grantees to take applicants’ faith into account in hiring.

“I am deeply disappointed that the bill ends the National Reporting System, our only tool to examine consistently how Head Start children are performing in programs across the nation,” the president said in a Dec. 12 statement, our only tool to examine consistently how Head Start children are performing in programs across the nation,” the president said in a Dec. 12 statement, referring to the tests first given to pupils in 2003 that the reauthorized law now prohibits. “I am also disappointed that the bill fails to include my proposal to protect faith-based organizations’ religious- hiring autonomy.”

The White House hadn’t, however, threatened a veto of the Head Start measure, which garnered overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. The bill passed the House by a vote of 381-36 on Nov. 14. Later that day, the Senate approved it, 95-0. (“Head Start Measure Expected to Launch New Era for Program,” Nov. 28, 2007.)

The president also lambasted the measure for boosting spending authorizations for the program, which received $6.8 billion in the 2007 fiscal year. The law will gradually raise authorization levels to $7.9 billion in fiscal 2010.

“Approval of this legislation is not an endorsement of these funding levels or a commitment to request them,” he said.

President Bush signed the bill, which has been pending in Congress since 2003, on Dec. 12 in a small Oval Office ceremony attended by key education leaders in Congress, including Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate, Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee.

Although the administration often uses such bill signings to bring program constituents and advocates to the White House for a photo opportunity, there appeared to be no desire for such a showcase with this bill. No Head Start advocates attended the ceremony.

Signing Statement?

Sen. Kennedy expressed disappointment in a statement that President Bush had “distanced himself from the funding commitment this bill provides. While the president has asked Congress to approve spending $433 million per day in Iraq, he says the modest increase in this bill to help our neediest children prepare for school is too much.”

Some opponents of the religious-hiring language had worried that the president might issue a “signing statement” seeking to allow religious organizations to use religion as a factor in hiring decisions. Republican leaders in Congress had sought to include such language in the bill, but it was rejected.

Presidents use signing statements to express their authority to interpret legislation to fit their own legal and constitutional views, often over the objections of lawmakers, according a report released last year by the American Bar Association. President Bush has issued signing statements that challenge more than 800 legislative provisions, according to the ABA report. That’s more than all other presidents combined. (“Some Conditions May Apply,” Aug. 9, 2006.)

Mr. Bush had not released such a statement for the Head Start measure as of the day after he signed the bill, said Elizabeth W. Chervenak, a White House spokeswoman. She added that she was not aware of plans for a statement, but she declined to rule out the possibility.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 19, 2007 edition of Education Week as Bush Signs Head Start, With Qualms

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