- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

“I’ll never forget the lady in Houston,” the president recalled, during his recent visit to the Head Start Center at Highland Park Elementary in Landover, Md. “She said, ‘Reading is the new civil right.’ ” The comment was so provocative that he incorporated it as a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. “Her point was that if you can’t read,” Mr. Bush explained to his Landover audience, “it is hard to access the greatness of America. And, if reading is the new civil right, a good place to start with civil rights is at the Head Start programs all across the country.” Of course, he is right.

In pursuit of this noble cause, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed landmark Head Start reauthorization legislation last month. The bill would significantly strengthen the academic focus of Head Start, while preserving the health, nutritional and social services provided by the program. It would also improve teacher quality in Head Start by requiring all new teachers to have at least an associate’s degree in early childhood education or a related field within three years; and by 2008, 50 percent of Head Start teachers would have to have a bachelor’s degree.

The Head Start bill would also establish a pilot program in which up to eight states could coordinate their own early childhood-education programs with Head Start. Now that states will be held accountable for meeting specific reading and math goals codified in the No Child Left Behind Act, it only makes sense that states be given some flexibility in coordinating pre-school programs.

For good reason, the Head Start reauthorization bill, which will soon come up for a vote on the House floor, is titled the School Readiness Act of 2003. The 38-year-old Head Start program, which serves nearly 1 million low-income children ages 3 to 4, has enjoyed a stellar reputation — some of which is even deserved. However, the fact is that there remains a significant “readiness gap” between Head Start graduates and their more affluent peers.

A recent report by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revealed that, in early learning knowledge areas, Head Start children improved from the 21st percentile upon entering the program to the 24th percentile after completing it. This marginal progress, however, still left them 26 percentile points behind the national average. Moreover, research demonstrates that such a significant “readiness gap” is likely to persist throughout elementary and secondary schooling. The White House cites the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (Kindergarten Cohort), which has been assessing the skills and progress of 20,000 children across the nation who entered kindergarten in 1998. Children who are least prepared to enter kindergarten (including many Head Start graduates) encounter a disproportionate number of reading obstacles as they proceed through elementary school. The HHS study concluded: “Even though most children in Head Start make some educational progress, most of them still leave the program with skills and knowledge levels that are far below what we expect.”

As Mr. Bush said in Landover, “We want Head Start to set higher ambitions for the million children it serves.” And so should everybody in Congress, as well as all the well-meaning, though sometimes misguided, people associated with Head Start across the nation.

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