The Bush administration's proposal to revamp the popular federal Head Start pre-school programs for poor children is drawing fire from child education experts. States, however, are eyeing the chance to get the federal money and run the programs themselves.
House Republicans began debate this month on a proposal (H.R. 2210) from Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.) that builds on the president's plan outlined earlier this year that aims to improve the way Head Start prepares poor young children for school. The Senate is to turn to the issue later this month.
Among the most controversial aspects of the House GOP measure is the idea of allowing states to combine their pre-school and child care programs with Head Start. Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R) is pushing for his state to be the first to try such a "demonstration" program.
Less controversial is the House GOP plan to require that all Head Start teachers have bachelor's degrees by 2008.
Head Start is a federal program run at the local level that provides education, health care, nutrition and parent involvement programs to nearly 1 million children and their families.
Governors said they "applaud" the president for offering a proposal giving them a greater role in overseeing the Head Start program, but stopped short of endorsing any plan in a May 7 letter from the National Governors' Association to Capitol Hill.
Some Democrats have raised concerns. Govs. John Baldacci and James McGreevey, Democratic governors in Maine and New Jersey, respectively, have questioned whether the GOP plan might ultimately mean less federal funds for Head Start.
West Virginia state Sen. Wayne Bailey (D) wants Congress to leave Head Start alone. "Every time a Republican president gets elected, they scream `we need to give more responsibility to the states' ... but what they are really saying is we want to cut funding to these programs and let the states pick up the tab," Bailey, the Senate majority whip, told Stateline.org.
The Bush administration and the House GOP insist their plan would not simply send federal Head Start funds to the states in the form of block grants, without standards or conditions, but many don't agree. "This looks and feels like a block grant," said Rachel Schumacher, a senior policy analyst with the nonpartisan Center for Law and Social Policy, (CLASP), an advocacy group that focuses on policy issues affecting poor families.
States that opt for the demonstration route would get the federal money but wouldn't have to adhere to the federal Head Start standards and teacher qualification requirements, said Mark Ginsberg, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a trade group that represents early childhood educators. "If I was a governor in a state that was having an economically challenging moment ... of course I would take it," Ginsberg said.
Only three states Delaware, Washington and Oregon have the experience to provide the kinds of services that Head Start currently provides, said Joel Ryan, director of government affairs for the National Head Start Association, an advocacy group. The group said its Save Head Start lobbying efforts against the proposal resulted in more than 35,000 letters and e-mails to members of Congress and governors since April.
Rep. John Boehner, (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee overseeing the debate, dismissed these groups' "shrill attacks" on the legislation. He said in a statement that the demonstration program would be restricted to those states with proven track records in early childhood education and that states would not be allowed to cut funding to these programs.
The Council of Chief State School Officers, a trade group that represents state superintendents and education commissioners, dismissed concerns that states would use the demonstration program to lower standards. Many state pre-school programs already go beyond Head Start requirements and the demonstration program would allow states to "raise the bar" even higher, according to Patricia Sullivan, deputy executive director of the council.
But Head Start officials at the state and local levels aren't so sure. "Cash-strapped states cannot be relied upon to maintain the quality and comprehensive services of Head Start," Helga Lemke, executive director of Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County, Calif., told a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee June 3 that was considering the GOP legislation. "It is inevitable that states will look eagerly and hungrily at Head Start dollars to help cover the costs of child care and other programs," she said.
Dr. Robert Lawrence, director of the Head Start State Collaboration Program for Georgia, told the same House panel that his state would apply to participate in such a demonstration program, noting the state's 10-year track record of working with Head Start via its pre-K program. But Lawrence cautioned that not all states have that expertise.
The House plan already has made one major change from the president's proposal. It dropped the idea of moving the Head Start program from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education, which many groups opposed, saying it emphasized education at the expense of nutrition, parenting and other Head Start programs.
The Council of State Governments is worried that moving Head Start from HHS to the Department of Education "may mean that important comprehensive services could be watered down or eliminated," according to a May 18 council resolution urging the president to reconsider that idea.
Head Start is on Congress' radar screen now because the law that lays out Head Start technically expires this year and must be renewed.
The president sees the initiative as the next step after the No Child Left Behind education bill that he signed into law in 2002. "To close the achievement gap in our schools, we must close the early childhood education gap in our society," the president said when he first outlined the initiative last year.