GOP Policy on Early Childhood Program Draws IreAn increasingly bitter debate over the future of Head Start is drawing interest from African American lawmakers and experts across the educational pipeline who value the work of the 38-year-old early childhood program.
At issue is a Bush administration and House of Representatives plan to give states more control of the program, under which funds traditionally flow from Washington, D.C., to local grantees. After facing criticism, the GOP would scale back the new experiment to only eight states. But advocates see the plan as the beginning of the end for the federal preschool program that serves low-income children.
“We know what happens when we block grant programs,” says Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who once was an assistant teacher in a Head Start program. “We give the states the opportunity to do what they want to do with the money, and we are opposing that.”
One of the eight states in the pilot may be New Jersey, which already is struggling with implementation of a court ruling requiring equal spending on school-age children, says Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J. Critics note that states may not have to guarantee the Head Start standards required for current grantees. The state option may be “the first step” in undermining quality, comprehensive services, he says.
But advocates of the plan say the program needs improvement. “The simple truth is that children in Head Start are learning, but they aren’t learning as much as they deserve to be learning,” says Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., chief author of the reform plan. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also says Head Start children lag behind more affluent peers in vocabulary, early writing and math awareness when they enter kindergarten.
With more control, governors could better coordinate Head Start with fast-growing state- and locally funded pre-kindergarten programs.
But opponents say turning Head Start over to the states will do little to promote quality, since the federal program provides health and nutrition as well as education.
“They receive not only an early childhood education but they also receive those basic kinds of support services that they need to move on to lead a quality healthy life,” says Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
Citing mounting concerns about the plan, the Congressional Black Caucus held a forum in mid-June to hear testimony from Head Start advocates.
Head Start officials also are concerned about administration attempts to stifle debate. The Bush administration is trying to “terrify” local staff by threatening action against those who oppose changes, says Sarah Greene, National Head Start Association (NHSA) president. NHSA is suing the Bush administration after grantees received a letter outlining limits on how they, as recipients of federal funds, may speak out on the changes.
Individuals could face loss of federal funds “and even criminal sanctions for expressing their views,” NHSA’s lawsuit states.
The Head Start changes have gained approval from a House subcommittee, and more votes are expected this month.
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