Advocates for Head Start stepped up their defense of the popular preschool program last week, taking aim at critics who have questioned the salaries paid to some local directors and disputing the fairness of proposed new requirements for Head Start teachers.
Bills now pending in both houses of Congress to reauthorize the federal program for poor 3- and 4-year-olds would impose an “unfunded mandate” by requiring more teachers to earn bachelor’s degrees, while not authorizing enough money for teachers to earn more education or higher salaries, officials of the National Head Start Association said during a telephone press conference.
“People who want to dismantle Head Start are deliberately setting the bar as high as possible,” charged Sarah Greene, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based association, which represents Head Start employees and families. “We are concerned about being set up to fail.”
If Congress approves the higher education requirements, Head Start teachers who earn the four-year degrees will be “lured away by elementary schools,” said Marge Stillwell, the executive director of the Illinois Head Start Association and a participant in the Nov. 25 press conference.
“We are very excited about raising the professional skill level of Head Start teachers that we oversee,” she said. “But the hard, cold reality here is that we have to have the resources from Congress to meet the goals that it is setting out for us.”
But Steve Barbour, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that runs Head Start, said that the Bush administration and past administrations “have done all they can to raise salaries,” and that local agencies have discretion to raise salaries.
Defending the Program
During the press conference, NHSA officials also released salary figures showing that the vast majority of Head Start directors don’t make anywhere near $300,000—the amount that had been paid to the director of a Head Start agency in Kansas City, Mo., and which prompted leading members of the House of Representatives to ask for an investigation into program salaries. (“Hefty Head Start Salaries Prompt Federal Inquiry,” Oct. 22, 2003.)
Instead, Ben Allen, the NHSA’s director of research and evaluation, said that Head Start’s 2,500 executive directors earn an average of $53,114, and that 99 percent of them earn less than $100,000.
The Senate’s reauthorization proposal recommends a salary cap, stating that no director of a nonprofit agency receiving a Head Start grant would be allowed to earn more than the $171,900 a year that Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson earns.
Head Start teachers earn an average of about $21,000, less than half what elementary school teachers earn on average, according to the NHSA.
The association collected the salary data to counter the perception that there is widespread financial abuse in the program. In fact, Ms. Greene maintained, there are only “six so-called problem cases.”
Mr. Allen added that situations involving “fiscal management deficiencies” were down, compared with previous years.
Mr. Barbour of the Administration for Children and Families conceded that the NHSA’s figures on salaries were probably correct.
Still, he said, “the point is that Head Start is a program for poor kids. No one begrudges a guy driving a Cadillac, but let’s be honest about where the money is coming from.”
The ACF is still working on compiling the salary and other financial data requested in October by Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, and Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who chairs the panel’s Subcommittee on Education Reform. The investigation has been expanded, and a report is due next month.
During the press conference last week, NHSA officials also said that Head Start directors’ salaries are approved by federal officials.
But Mr. Barbour said that point was misleading. Regional offices within the Health and Human Services Department, he said, get a “total budget for salaries, but we’ve never asked them to break it down.”