- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

A House Republican Head Start bill survived its first rewrite last week despite Democratic warnings that the bill “would be a disaster” for the popular federally funded preschool program.

The bill is likely to be considered later this month by the full House Education and the Workforce Committee, aides said yesterday.

The Head Start bill “strikes a fair balance” in maintaining the program’s core services, education and nutrition, while strengthening its focus on preschool literacy and academics, Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce subcommittee on education reform, said after the bill passed late Thursday night.

The bill, however, includes a hotly debated section that would allow up to eight governors unprecedented control over the Head Start programs in their states.

The Bush administration and its allies say this control is needed so governors can organize state preschool programs. Under current law, Republicans say, Head Start programs can isolate themselves and even be at cross-purposes with other preschool programs.

The $6.7 billion Head Start program provides education, health, nutrition and social services to some 900,000 low-income preschoolers and their families. The program is up for reauthorization this year.

The Head Start debate “should be about protecting children, not protecting turf,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the full education committee.

“If a handful of states are willing to make a commitment to high standards and funding for early childhood education, then the federal government should allow them to coordinate Head Start with their own early education programs,” he said.

But at Thursday’s subcommittee session, Democrats, led by Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California, tried unsuccessfully to remove the offending section, which they say will dismantle the 38-year-old program.

After the bill passed, Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and ranking member of the full committee, called it “a disaster for Head Start.”

Head Start advocates say the program’s independence, plus its own rules and standards, are the keys to its success.

Head Start was started as a federal-to-local program, bypassing state bureaucracies, because states were giving “uneven treatment” to at-risk children, said Maureen Thompson, a consultant to the National Head Start Association (NHSA).

That’s why it is unacceptable to give governors funding and program control of Head Start, she said.

States have greatly improved their early childhood education programs, say officials with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), who on Monday released a report explaining why it was now “vitally important” to give a few states the chance to integrate Head Start into their preschool networks.

Separately this week, the NHSA filed a lawsuit asking for relief from an HHS letter advising Head Start grantees that federal law restricts their “political activities.” This is “unlawful suppression of speech,” the NHSA lawsuit said.

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