Fewer than eight states are equipped to take over the federal Head Start preschool program for poor children in their states, an idea that Congress is seriously considering, early childhood education experts warn.
The U.S. House of Representatives is slated next week to take up a bill (H.R. 2210) that would allow up to eight states to run the Head Start program as part of a "demonstration" project.
Head Start, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society program, 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.
The House GOP's original bill sparked intense opposition from child advocacy groups, which argued that cash-strapped states might use federal Head Start money for other purposes. Democratic governors in Maine, New Jersey and Pennsylvania also raised concerns about the GOP plan.
To counter the criticism, House Republicans restricted to eight the number of states that could participate in the pilot program and added more strings. For example, the proposed pilot is open to only states that already have state-run pre-kindergarten programs. States also can't cut their current levels of early childhood education funding and must match at least 50 percent of the federal funds with state and local dollars. So if a state gets $100 million a year in federal Head Start funds, they must pony up at least $50 million in state and local money.
Some advocate groups hailed the tighter restrictions but still question whether eight states are up to the task. Part of the problem is that no one really knows how good the 40 state-run pre-K programs are, said Amy Wilkins, executive director of The Trust for Early Education, an advocacy group.
"They vary widely, from very high quality programs to not-so-good programs," Wilkins told Stateline.org.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, said the federal government lacks authority to investigate the quality of all the state pre-K programs since states are spending their own money to operate the programs.
In a June 2003 report, "Strengthening Head Start: What the Evidence Shows," HHS reports that six states have been "widely recognized" for providing exemplary preschool education to low-income children Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Oregon and Washington.
HHS also reports that six states California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan and Washington require preschool programs to adhere to educational standards.
Education experts offer differing opinions on which states provide the best pre-K programs.
Wilkins, of The Trust for Early Education, named six states with solid preschool programs, but they weren't the same as those HHS listed. She described New York and New Jersey programs as "very good" while the Michigan and Maryland programs are "good, but small." She described Georgia's program as "very large, but spotty" and pointed to North Carolina as doing a "pretty good job." She said the number of states participating in such a pilot should be smaller than eight. The Trust for Early Education was established in 2002 with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the same organization that funds Stateline.org.
Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio rank among the good candidates for the pilot program, said Richard Clifford, senior scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is currently studying six state pre-K programs for the U.S. Department of Education.
"I like the idea of having a few pilot states to see how well this can work," Clifford told Stateline.org. "While I think there are possibilities for this to work well, there are also big potential pitfalls," he said. One possible pitfall is a state having a pre-K program with lower standards than those in Head Start, he said. The current legislation doesn't require states in the pilot to live up to existing Head Start standards, he said.
"I would be extremely concerned if we saw that states were watering down the Head Start program," he said. Clifford works at the university's Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, created in 1966 to study child development issues.
The National Head Start Association, an advocacy group that opposes the GOP legislation, said only three states Delaware, Washington and Oregon have the experience to provide the kinds of services that Head Start currently provides. Maureen Thompson, a legislative consultant to the association, said the eligibility requirements are "so loose that any state will qualify."
Similar criticism comes from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a trade group that represents early childhood educators. "Many states are eligible [to participate in the pilot program]. The question is whether the best eight plans will be approved or will the first eight plans submitted be approved?" said Adele Robinson, senior director of public policy for the association.
Congress is looking at Head Start now because the law that lays out that program technically expires this year and must be renewed. The Senate does not yet have a Head Start reauthorization bill, but a panel is scheduled to hold a hearing next week on the issue.