- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The House yesterday renewed and expanded the Head Start program for preschoolers, despite squabbling about student tests, the role of faith-based providers and whether states should have more control.

The bill, approved by a 365-48 vote, aims to improve the 42-year-old program by increasing competition among providers, boosting funding in order to serve more youngsters and requiring more highly qualified teachers.

Senate Democrats hope to introduce their own Head Start bill in the next few weeks.

The House bill “is a major revamping of the Head Start program,” said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.

He said Head Start “continues to be a wise investment.”

The program is intended to help 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income households start kindergarten on par with their more privileged peers.

The White House opposes the bill for several reasons, one being the omission of language protecting faith-based Head Start providers.

Democrats blocked a Republican amendment that would have solidified the ability of faith-based Head Start providers to hire workers of one particular faith. Democratic leaders said it would effectively legalize discrimination.

“No citizen should have to pass a religious test to qualify for a publicly funded job,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, Florida Democrat.

Without protection, faith-based groups might drop out of the program, Republicans countered.

“It’ll just force them out of participating,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican.

Democrats offered an amendment supporting faith-based groups’ right to participate in Head Start, but Mr. McKeon said it was just “political cover.” The amendment was approved on a vote of 229-195.

The Head Start Web site reports 100 faith-based providers for the 2004-05 academic year and 95 for the 2005-06 year.

The Office of Management and Budget said this week that the administration “believes that such provisions should be applied to all federally funded social service programs so faith-based organizations may operate on an equal level with every other organization competing to provide services.”

The bill would eliminate the National Reporting System that has been used to measure the progress of children in Head Start. Both Democrats and Republicans said the system isn’t working, but the administration “strongly opposes” stripping “the one assessment tool that measures children’s progress in Head Start using a consistent methodology,” the OMB said.

Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican, tried yesterday to create a pilot program that would let eight states use federal Head Start money to run their own early childhood initiatives. The federal government currently gives Head Start grants directly to local providers.

Mr. Price’s proposal failed on a 254-165 vote.

Mr. Miller said the change would “end Head Start in those eight states” and result in low-quality programs.

Others said federal lawmakers should have more trust in state control. “Sometimes I get the feeling that people here in Washington think all wisdom resides inside the Beltway,” said Mr. McKeon.

Head Start served about 900,000 children last year. It received $6.9 billion from Congress in fiscal 2007.

The bill asks for $7.35 billion for 2008, targeting the increase to allow 10,000 more children into the program. It also requires that 50 percent of Head Start teachers hold a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related field by 2013 and would set aside funds for higher teacher salaries and more professional development.

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