A bill to reauthorize the federal Head Start preschool program gained bipartisan support from the House education committee last week, but the planned addition of language to allow faith-based groups to hire only members of their own religion could derail the cooperative process.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office released a report last week that questioned the effectiveness of a 2-year-old system for evaluating children’s progress in the Head Start program.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee on May 18 unanimously approved the School Readiness Act of 2005, which would reauthorize the Head Start program that helps prepare more than 900,000 disadvantaged children for kindergarten each year.
Democrats lauded the compromise bill, but in the same breath blasted plans by Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the education committee, to insert language on the House floor that would allow faith-based groups to base hiring decisions on religion.
Rep. Lynne Woolsey, D-Calif., called the faith-based provision “the elephant in the room,” since it had not yet been added to the bill. She said faith-based groups should not be allowed to discriminate using taxpayer dollars.
“It will make a mockery out of this bipartisan process,” she said, indicating that the faith-based provision could be a deal-breaker as it was, in part, during the effort to reauthorize the Head Start program in the last Congress.
Mr. Boehner acknowledged the controversial nature of the proposal and said he would add the provision on the House floor to prevent heated committee debate from overshadowing the bill’s other important provisions.
“I do realize it’s divisive,” said Mr. Boehner, but he said he believed it was important to allow faith-based groups to retain the protections given them in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Only a handful of programs, including Head Start, bar faith-based groups from discriminating if they use federal money.
A day earlier, the GAO report found that the National Reporting System, first implemented in 2003 to evaluate the skills of 4- and 5-year-old Head Start students, has not been shown to provide “reliable information on children’s progress during the Head Start program year,” nor that its “results are valid measures of the learning that takes place.”
The testing system focuses on vocabulary, letter recognition, and early-mathematics skills. (See box.)
Critics say the system is inappropriate and not research-based. The GAO said that the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, should be more clear about how the NRS data is to be used.
The Head Start National Reporting System evaluates 4- and 5-year-old participants. In a part of the test that comes from the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-3rd Edition, a child is asked to point to pictures to help determine whether he or she understands complex and varied vocabulary.
SOURCE: U.S. Government Accountability Office
In a written response, Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, said an analysis was being conducted to demonstrate the reliability of the NRS data. But he defended the system, saying that “unless we ensure that programs are providing meaningful and challenging learning experiences through ongoing observation and assessment of children’s progress … participation will have little value for children.”
At last week’s committee hearing, Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., introduced an amendment to suspend the NRS, but he pulled the proposal and said he would reintroduce it on the House floor.
The current language of the bill already makes a number of changes to the Head Start program—many of them endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats.
In particular, Republicans dropped their push to create an eight-state block grant program that would have sent federal Head Start funds to the states to distribute instead of directly to grantees. Instead, the bill requires more coordination between Head Start and state-run pre-kindergarten programs.
The bill also calls for increased monitoring of Head Start grantees by the Health and Human Services Department. That measure was prompted by news reports in the last several years about mismanagement of local Head Start programs. The bill would also make it easier for HHS to cut off grantees who aren’t properly managing their federal money.
“It will make Head Start more transparent and accountable to parents and taxpayers by requiring annual independent financial audits for Head Start grantees,” and require all grantees to make public an annual report detailing how money was spent, Mr. Boehner said.
Democrats are tentatively embracing a somewhat controversial provision to force poorly run Head Start programs to compete with other providers when their grants expire. Republicans had initially proposed that all grantees recompete at the end of their grants, but the latest version of the bill calls for only programs with at least one serious deficiency be held to that standard.
Though Democrats endorsed the idea, they remained cautious.
“It is very important that the secretary [of health and human services] focus this effort on the grantees with serious problems,” said Rep. George Miller of California, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “Requiring good programs to recompete will hurt the children and families served by Head Start because it will destabilize communities, cripple professional development and teacher quality, and undermine community partnerships and collaborative efforts.”