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Obama again sidesteps Congress with Head Start order

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2011

President Obama unveiled the latest installment of his "we can't wait" campaign against Congress on Tuesday, this time issuing new rules governing the early childhood education program Head Start.

During a trip to a Head Start center near Philadelphia, Mr. Obama toured classrooms and then spoke to a group of local teachers and educators about what he said was congressional inaction on education initiatives.

Congress has failed to overhaul President Bush's landmark 2002 No Child Left Behind legislation, despite his administration's efforts to build on changes states have made to the law, Mr. Obama said.

"So after trying for months to work with Congress on education, we decided to take matters into our own hands, because our future is at stake," Mr. Obama said. "Our children deserve action. And we can't wait for Congress any longer."

Mr. Obama made the changes to Head Start, a federal government program providing grants to local organizations serving low-income children, by issuing a new series of executive orders. The move is part of a strategy to circumvent Congress' opposition to the president's $447 billion job creation bill and demonstrate that Mr. Obama is working to jump-start the economy.

Tuesday's announcement marks the third education initiative that the administration has embarked on recently without Congress. Last month, Mr. Obama announced sweeping changes to the federal student loan program, allowing students to consolidate their debts into one payment at a lower interest rate and capping monthly bills at no more than 20 percent of a graduate's discretionary income.

In September, the White House unveiled a waiver proposal to free states and school districts from the mandates of NCLB. Mr. Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have called the effort their "plan B," with the preferred course being a complete overhaul passed by the House and Senate.

The administration has also made pre-kindergarten education a top priority, and supporters of Mr. Obama's plan believe it will lead to greater accountability and higher quality programs at the local level.

For the first time in the Head Start program's history, over the next three years the Department of Health and Human Services will review the performance and program quality of all organizations receiving grants. Those that fail to meet the new standards, which include on-site reviews, evaluations of school-readiness goals for children, fiscal management issues and requirements to keep state and local license up-to-date, will no longer receive an automatic grant renewal.

While supporting the plan itself, congressional Republicans believe the administration has only itself to blame for not implementing the Head Start changes sooner.

"Despite claims of congressional inaction, the plan announced by President Obama today is already law [-] and his own administration has delayed its implementation for nearly three years," said Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

In 2007, Congress passed legislation to put an end to automatic Head Start grant renewal. Since then, the Education Department has set up study committees and reviewed more than 16,000 public comments, White House officials told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, in contrast to the president's blistering attack on Republicans in Philadelphia, told reporters on the call that the 2007 legislation authorizing the Head Start changes "is a great example for our children" of how both parties can work together.

Now that it's finally being put in place, Republicans expect Mr. Obama to use it as a talking point on the stump next year, despite the fact that the bill passed with bipartisan support four years ago.

"While it is encouraging this effort to strengthen Head Start will finally take effect, I am disappointed the president has chosen to repackage a bipartisan congressional initiative intended to help disadvantaged children into a partisan ploy for the campaign trail," said Mr. Kline.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, said in a statement that his party deserves some of the credit for the reforms. He called Tuesday's action "long overdue."

Mr. Enzi and other Senate Republicans continue work on a bipartisan NCLB overhaul bill, which they expect to bring to the floor sometime next year. In the House, Mr. Kline is poised to release the last in a series of education reforms and hoped the full package can clear the House in early 2012.

Much of Mr. Obama's agenda, however, has gone nowhere.

Last month, Congress rejected a portion of the plan to spend money to hire teachers and emergency first-responders that would have been paid for by increasing taxes on millionaires.

Although presidential executives orders are limited in what they can accomplish, Mr. Obama hopes to highlight small steps, such as the changes to Head Start, to pressure Congress to tackle bigger issues [-] in this case broader changes to the nation's education system. On Monday, Mr. Obama focused on his plans to help unemployed veterans.

Republicans so far have rebuffed Mr. Obama's attempts to pressure them into passing his economic agenda. While they support some aspects of the president's economic plans, such as tax credits for hiring veterans and tax cuts for businesses, Republicans are ardently opposed to any attempt to pay for new spending by increasing taxes.

Resistance in Congress hasn't stopped Mr. Obama from trying to hammer his message home to voters.

"Their argument is that we don't have the money," Mr. Obama told an audience at the Yeadon Regional Head Start Center Tuesday morning. "And what I've said is we can make these investments in our children without adding to the deficit simply by asking people who make more than a million dollars a year to pay a little more in taxes — not right now, but starting in 2013."

"It's the right thing to do for our kids. It's the right thing to do for our country," he continued. "But so far they've said no."

The new rules governing Head Start would provide accountability through clearer, high standards and regular, thorough evaluations, Mr. Obama said. If programs fail to meet the standards, they will be forced to compete with other local organizations for the grant money.

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