Senate Plan Rejects State Control of Head StartHead Start legislation taking shape in the Senate would keep control of the landmark preschool program with the federal government, rejecting an experiment in state control championed by the Bush administration and narrowly approved by the House.
Under the new Senate bill, Head Start centers would be required to show better coordination between states and schools and ensure children develop a stronger academic foundation. But the sponsors are seeking to avoid the partisan wrangling over state control that dominated debate in the House, which passed by one vote a bill to allow some states to manage Head Start programs.
Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate have tentatively agreed on the core points of the bill which was headed for its first committee review earlier this month. But negotiations continue, and key issues such as money, religious-based hiring and testing have not been worked out.
“I didn’t really have a great vested interest in this argument over whether the states should manage it or whether it should maintain its present structure,” says Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate education committee. “My view is the outcome is what we’re interested in: maintaining the strength of the program and getting better academic skills.”
Born during the civil rights era, Head Start provides academic, social and nutritional help to roughly a million poor children a year. The program is up for reauthorization this year, but Gregg said the Senate will probably not take a final vote until early next year.
The House bill would allow up to eight states to manage Head Start so they could coordinate the program and merge its money with other education efforts, provided they meet conditions designed to safeguard quality. The Bush administration had proposed giving such flexibility to all 50 states.
The Bush administration, however, signaled its preference for the House version of the Head Start bill.
“We remain committed to improving school readiness for all Head Start children, strengthening the collaboration between state early childhood programs and Head Start, and improving the management of the program,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said in a statement. “The House made great progress in its version of the bill.”
Some senators were concerned that the House plan could create more, not less, competition among education centers. Still, Gregg could not rule out that some state control could emerge in final negotiations with the House.
While saying he was pleased that the Senate bill does not include the Bush administration approach, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel, said, “We still have a long way to go before we have a bill that nearly every Democrat will support.”
Senators, responding to at least two reports of local Head Start administrators receiving salaries of more than $200,000, included a salary cap in their bill. No Head Start employee would be paid more than the secretary of Health and Human Services. HHS oversees the program, and Secretary Tommy Thompson is paid $171,900 annually.
Overall, the themes of the Senate bill are similar to those in the House version: expanded emphasis on academics, higher standards for teachers, better coordination with other care providers and greater accountability of Head Start centers.
Some highlights of the Senate plan include:
• New academic standards for learning the alphabet, basic math skills and measuring length, weight and time;
• Requirements for all Head Start teachers to have at least an associate’s degree by 2009 and show a proven ability to teach;
• Coordination between Head Start centers and schools to align their standards so children can move smoothly from federal preschool into other education; and
• Giving governors authority to approve applications from centers seeking Head Start money for the first time.
The House included a provision allowing religiously focused Head Start centers to base hiring on a person’s faith. The Senate education committee did not include that controversial measure.
Maureen Thompson, a lobbyist for the National Head Start Association, said the group and other advocates were just starting to review the Senate bill’s details. A White House spokesman had no immediate comment on the Senate plan.
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