- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

President Bush's plan to give states control of the federal Head Start preschool program would dismantle it instead, say two Democratic senators and a child advocacy group.
"Head Start works. It has a proven record," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, told reporters this week. Abandoning it "to the 50 winds of this country is a major step back for the children of this country."
One of the most important aspects of Head Start is that the money goes right to the communities, bypassing state officials, said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat.
If money-strapped states are allowed to "grab" the $6.6 billion in Head Start money, they may use it somewhere else, Mr. Dodd warned.
"Let there be no doubt," he added, the Bush reform "is an effort to dilute or destroy this program. We're going to fight this very, very hard."
Head Start, an anti-poverty program created in 1965, is up for reauthorization this year. It provides low-income preschoolers education, nutrition, health care and social services to prepare them for kindergarten.
The Bush administration wants to help states coordinate their early childhood services and proposes giving states control over the Head Start programs so they can be integrated into state plans.
States opting for control of Head Start would have to submit a master plan to the departments of Health and Human Services and Education, maintain their portion of Head Start funding and serve the same number of poor 3- and 4-year-olds as in previous years.
Mr. Bush also has called for Head Start to step up its academic focus, especially in reading. While support for this goal is widespread, proponents say Head Start should not be turned into a literacy program.
"Children cannot learn when they are hungry or sick or too worried about their home situation to concentrate in school," said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund.
Mr. Kennedy said Head Start would be better served by improving teacher quality, expanding eligibility rules and fully funding the program.
A hearing on Head Start is likely to be held in early March in the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Meanwhile, several elementary school principals say Head Start students appear ready socially but not necessarily academically.
Head Start children "demonstrate strong social skills" and can work well with teachers and classmates, said Stephen D. Shepperd, principal of Sunnyside Elementary School in Kellogg, Idaho, and a member of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
However, most Head Start children "have no comprehension of those pre-reading and math skills required by the state of Idaho for those entering kindergarten," said Mr. Shepperd.
Specifically, he said, Head Start children often don't know many letters or sounds, how to count word syllables or identify rhyming words.
Still, "children are much more 'ready' for school as a result of their Head Start experience than they would be in its absence," said Jim Ratledge, principal of Montvale Elementary School in Maryville, Tenn.
Their knowledge of alphabet and numbers may vary, he added, "but in all cases is far superior to that if Head Start was not available."

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