- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The successes and failures of the venerable Head Start program were laid out yesterday before a Senate committee while House Republicans lobbied colleagues to ensure a vote for their reform bill, which could come as soon as tomorrow.

A House vote on a Head Start reform bill is likely this week, Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, told reporters yesterday.

Asked if there were enough votes to pass the School Readiness Act, he said: “No. But we’re working.”

Republicans are fighting Head Start’s institutional backers, who are working to scuttle parts of the reauthorization, he said. “They are a very potent political force and they’ve been at it now for about six months.”

At issue is a section in the bill to allow up to eight states the power to integrate Head Start with their pre-existing early education network. That has never been done in Head Start history — the 38-year-old War on Poverty measure has always been a federal-to-local program.

Recently, however, Head Start’s independence has rankled some state officials as they try to create seamless, efficient networks of early education programs. Some Head Start grantees, they say, refuse to collaborate and even compete with state programs for the same low-income students.

Most important, Republicans say, Head Start has generally failed to raise poor children’s preschool academic skills to an average level. The Bush administration plan, which is offered in a modified form in the House bill, would allow a few states to have oversight over Head Start operations.

The eight-state plan is vehemently denounced by House Democrat leaders and the National Head Start Association, which represents 2,500 Head Start grantees.

They say that the eight-state experiment will allow cash-strapped governors to take control of Head Start’s funds and essentially dismantle it. Head Start is often the superior preschool program in a community, they add, which makes it ludicrous to merge it with inferior state programs.

So far, the House bill has passed out of committees with only Republican votes. Typically, Head Start reforms have been bipartisan.

Signs of trouble were evident last week when House leaders decided to postpone a vote on the bill because at least 12 supporters — the Republican margin of majority — were going to be absent. House Democrats said the vote was delayed because Republicans wanted to avoid an embarrassing defeat.

Yesterday, at the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions’ first hearing on Head Start, chairman Sen. Judd Gregg said Republicans “don’t wish to reinvent the wheel,” but believe Head Start can be improved.

Mr. Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, added that his Head Start priorities were to build on the program’s strong foundation, make it more aggressive about teaching basic academic skills, make it more accountable and align it with the needs of elementary schools.

Senate Democrats Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut expressed opposition to the Republican eight-state experiment. However, Mr. Dodd said they are withholding their own Head Start reform bill in hopes that a bipartisan bill can be crafted.

Head Start serves about 900,000 low-income children at a cost of $6.7 billion. It is up for renewal this year.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this story.

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