- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

Dale Talbert has a tough job. As principal of Maury Elementary on Capitol Hill, he has to produce bright students while manuevering the local and federal bureaucratic red tape that dictates who he can hire and how they must teach. All the while, he has to keep his teachers sharp, his parents happy and his students on target. So far, he's doing a mighty fine job. Each Maury student was expected to read 40 books this school year, but they exceeded that goal. Maury students have read 9,934 books. As Mr. Talbert told parents, volunteers and others, "Now that's something to celebrate." It is indeed. Wish there were grade schools like Maury in every American neighborhood. Alas, Maury is an exception when it comes to what really and truly is going on inside America's school houses, where external agitation plays politics with children's academic lives.
This budget season, special-interest groups are already braced for a full assault on President Bush's 2004 education budget, which gives states and parents greater leeway on early childhood programs and increases personal-income tax credits for classroom teachers, among other things. The National Head Start Assocation, for instance, wants to add $1 billion to the $6.7 billion in federal funds spent on Head Start and it is upset for a couple of reasons, but primarily because the administration wants to transfer Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Education. The Bush proposal makes perfectly good sense, since Head Start and taxpayer-funded programs like it should focus on education.
Heaven only knows what the late Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who, as then-chairman of the House education panel, helped usher in Head Start as part LBJ's war-on-poverty platform, might be thinking. Head Start was initially administered by the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare, with the thinking that focusing on a poor child's family will equal a preschooler better prepared for schooling. Ignorance and idealism got in the way, however. Studies show that, while many Head Start children can count and say the alphabet, and know the difference between a circle and square, whatever academic acumen they bring into the classrom as kindergarteners or first-graders is too often lost by the third or fourth grade.
Shouldn't states, then, have the flexibility to better incorporate all learning programs into their overall education goals? Shouldn't individual school districts and their families have the opportunity to decide what shape those learning programs should take instead of some bureaucrat sitting in front of a computer in Washington?
Officials and parents in some school districts, such as Maryland's Montgomery County, are already thinking outside the box. This fall, they plan to launch a preschool program called Fast Start that will focus on the three Rs and will be taught by certified teachers. Moreover, Montgomery school officials found that, by incorporating its preschool program into its overall educational plan, it can service hundreds more preschoolers than by solely depending on Head Start.
Nationwide, more than 850,000 families participate in Head Start. Remember that. Many of my media colleagues and the special-interest folks don't offer that fact. They have been falling all over themselves trying to convince you and other taxpayers to perish the thought of reform, of change and of choice. It's either the Head Start way or no way, they say. Public schools or no schooling.
Thomas Jefferson, the father of public education, once said that "if the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education."
Read that again. Understand that. "A good education."
Not merely an education. But "a good education."
Fortunately, there are principals, parents and teachers like those in Montgomery County and at Maury Elementary who hear different drum beats today. "Our goal," Mr. Talbert said, "is to always exceed the standard." (Applause, please.)
They know, it does no good to make sure preschoolers get a hot bowl of grits at school in the morning if, by third grade, they can't even spell the word.

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