- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

Throughout the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush repeatedly identified "the soft bigotry of low expectations" as today's biggest source of racial discrimination, and he asserted that "reading is the new civil right." To address these issues, he promised to reconstitute the Head Start program. Mr. Bush's goal is to ensure that the 900,000 disadvantaged children now served by Head Start would begin elementary school far more prepared to learn to read than they are today. In the Head Start reform agenda outlined in his fiscal 2004 budget, the president takes a major step toward that laudable end.
Since its inception in 1965, Head Start, which is currently administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, has been the primary preschool program for the poor. Unfortunately, and to the long-term detriment of its students, Head Start's reputation far exceeds its accomplishments. Several studies over the years have demonstrated that virtually all of the measurable benefits Head Start produces in the short term dissipate over the long run. This has been one of Head Start's best-kept secrets for years.
However, it hasn't prevented politicians from both parties from throwing money at an essentially unreformed program. Indeed, between 1992 and 2003, funding for Head Start has more than tripled, rising from $2.2 billion to $6.67 billion.
Head Start reform flows naturally from the president's No Child Left Behind education initiative, which will implement reading and math testing and accountability standards in grades three through eight. The legislation essentially holds governors accountable for ensuring that all children are reading at or above grade level by the third grade. To this end, the Bush administration argues, states need to be more involved at the pre-school level with children who are most at risk.
Mr. Bush wants to significantly increase the literacy component of the Head Start experience. He is offering states the opportunity to integrate Head Start programs with other pre-school programs and with their K-12 curricula. Thus, states would be given more authority to set the standards for Head Start teachers' qualifications. Another reform would introduce skills tests for 4-year-olds. The goal would be to identify those Head Start programs that are effective and those that are not. The testing would be straightforward: Preschoolers would be asked to identify letters of the alphabet, differentiate between triangles and squares, and count to 10 (or 20). In 2005, Head Start would be transferred to the Department of Education, where its literacy emphasis would be more easily implemented.
In effect, accountability would arrive at Head Start, a prospect that greatly disturbs the status quo interest groups. "Head Start is working, so there is no need to drastically alter it," the Children's Defense Fund has said. The CDF is wrong. As the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests demonstrate, the disturbingly wide gaps separating the reading scores of white students from those of black and Hispanic fourth-graders have actually increased since 1992. In fact, the reading scores of disproportionately disadvantaged minority students have either remained static or declined since 1992.
Reading deserves to be "the new civil right," and it's time to end "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Reform Head Start now.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide