- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

No federal program is more inviolable than Head Start. It enjoys bipartisan support because everybody believes in its mission. After all, who could be opposed to its mandate to help disadvantaged preschoolers, the vast majority of whom live below the poverty level, prepare to succeed in school? To criticize it is to commit policy heresy and political hara-kiri.
In theory, Head Start represents the gold standard of federal programs. For that reason, it has become gold-plated. The $6.7 billion budget for Head Start that President Bush seeks in fiscal 2003 represents a funding level that has more than tripled since 1992. The Bush administration reports it costs $6,800 per child for the average Head Start program to provide part-day services for eight or nine months each year. Nearly 700,000 children participate in the part-day programs, and another 225,000 preschoolers receive full-day, full-year services, which, obviously, cost considerably more. If Head Start actually accomplished its mission, the money would be well-spent. In fact, however, Head Start has not achieved the level of success that was envisioned in 1965, when the program was created. As numerous studies have confirmed, virtually all of the measurable benefits Head Start produces in the short term dissipate over the long run. Moreover, the dirty little secret is that Head Start, to a very large degree, functions as a jobs program for the mothers of the children who are currently enrolled or have been enrolled in the past. Providing such employment may have its own benefits, but that has not been the mission of the program.
Having identified "the soft bigotry of low expectations" as today's biggest source of racial discrimination, Mr. Bush campaigned for the presidency by repeatedly declaring that "reading is the new civil right." He promised to reconstitute Head Start to prepare low-income toddlers to learn to read. Mr. Bush now seeks to make good on that promise. Building upon the work of the White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development, which first lady Laura Bush, a former school librarian, hosted last July, the president has offered several long-overdue reforms for Head Start.
The new early childhood initiative, which has been dubbed "Good Start, Grow Smart," seeks to strengthen Head Start by introducing accountability measures. These would ensure that the 1,545 local grantees in the Head Start network actually implement the standards of learning in early literacy, language and numeracy skills that Congress mandated when Head Start was re-authorized in 1999. Each Head Start program would be evaluated to determine the extent to which it prepares children to meet these standards, which include the identification of at least 10 letters of the alphabet and the use of an increasingly complex and varied vocabulary. Mr. Bush's plan would also implement a national program to train nearly 50,000 Head Start teachers in early literacy teaching techniques, so that disadvantaged children arrive at elementary school far more prepared to learn to read than they are today. Mr. Bush is also seeking nearly $50 million to fund research to identify effective pre-reading, language-curricula and teaching strategies.
Expectedly, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, complained that the Bush proposal wasn't adequate because it did not include a major infusion of additional money, including the $1 billion that the senator wants to fund new grants to the states. As noted above, however, the Head Start budget has more than tripled since 1992. The funding is already available. Now is the time for Head Start to be reformed so that it can finally measure up to its undeserved prestige.

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