- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

A House committee yesterday passed a Head Start reform bill with only Republican support as Democrats opposed a measure that would allow unprecedented state control of the popular program for low-income preschoolers.

The bill, approved on a 27-20 party-line vote, increases Head Start’s funding to $6.8 billion a year and requires it to adopt a more academic focus.

But its most controversial section is a pilot program that would allow up to eight governors to apply for permission to meld the federal Head Start program, whose core services are education and nutrition, with their state preschool networks.

Governors seeking this authority would be required to meet Head Start’s standards for services and teacher quality, and match half the federal Head Start grant. Affected Head Start grantees would be guaranteed their placement and funding for three years.

In return for control over Head Start, governors must reduce inefficiencies in their preschool networks, Republicans said.

The pilot program is bitterly opposed by advocates for Head Start grantees, who say the program’s historical federal-to-local funding, federal standards and autonomy are key to the program’s success.

Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the pilot program was a timely reform.

If Congress is going to hold governors responsible for meeting the new educational standards in the No Child Left Behind Act, he said, “we have to give them the opportunity to create a seamless early-childhood education” network.

“There are states that are ready to do this,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican and chairman of the panel’s education reform subcommittee.

Interested states include Connecticut, Georgia, New Jersey and Colorado, House members said during the two-day rewrite of the bill.

House Democrats, however, rejected the pilot program as “a risky scheme” that won’t benefit low-income children and will lead to the dismantling of the 38-year-old War on Poverty program.

“What the bill does … is divert funds from local programs to governors and relieve states of the responsibility to meet current federal performance standards without setting new accountability requirements,” said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and ranking member of the committee.

“Why experiment with a successful program?” asked Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California Democrat, who, with Mr. Miller, proposed instead that Head Start funds be used to pay for state “collaborators” who would gather data, assess preschool needs and encourage Head Start grantees to work with states. Their amendment was voted down by Republicans.

In the Senate, Republican leaders haven’t yet taken up the reauthorization of Head Start.

This week, Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut pledged to fight the House bill’s pilot program.

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