- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Last week, the House passed a Head Start reform bill without the benefit of a single Democratic vote (217-216). Indeed, the deciding vote was cast by Republican Rep. John Sullivan, who was escorted into the House chamber in a wheelchair just before 1 a.m. Those who were listening during the 2000 presidential campaign will recall that candidate George W. Bush relentlessly emphasized that reading would become the new civil right in his administration. That intention formed the foundation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which mandates annual reading and math tests for children in the third through eighth grades beginning in the 2005-06 school year. That bill also requires accountability and enforces sanctions against schools that repeatedly fail to meet the new standards of “academic proficiency.”

One of the 2001 bill’s primary goals is to close the extremely wide reading and literacy gaps that separate disadvantaged children from their better-performing peers. The Bush administration has sought to reshape Head Start, the federally funded and locally operated early childhood education program for the poor, by significantly increasing the program’s emphasis on pre-literacy efforts.

To this end, the White House’s initial reform plan would have transferred the administration of Head Start, which also provides nutrition, health care and socialization skills to nearly 1 million 3- and 4-year-olds, to the Department of Education from the Department of Health and Human Services. It was a reform first advanced by the Carter administration. However, Head Start’s status-quo-embracing interest groups generated a firestorm of protest, forcing House sponsors to drop the idea. In addition, since it will be the states that determine the new “academic proficiency” standards to which their elementary schools will be held accountable, the original reform bill would have given the states an option to coordinate Head Start with their own pre-school programs. Doing so would have greatly expanded access to Head Start. However, to appease status-quo adherents, this proposal was later watered down to a pilot program available to a maximum of eight states.

Unfortunately, like the self-styled child advocates who opposed welfare reform in the mid-1990s to the bitter end, the Head Start traditionalists could not be appeased. This time, they succeeded in forcing House Democrats to unanimously toe the line.

Interestingly, the self-styled child advocates opposed to Head Start reform are the very same bitter-enders, led by Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, who railed against welfare reform, which has proved to be wildly successful. That should have been the first tip-off to the soundness of the administration’s Head Start reform plan. The second tip-off occurred a few days before last Friday’s vote. It was the release of the abysmal reading scores of black students in five big-city school districts (the District of Columbia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta). Compared to 38 percent of all fourth-graders in the nation’s public schools who read below the minimal basic level, an average of 70 percent of fourth-grade black students in these five big-city school districts read below the basic level. Compared to a national average reading score of 229 for white fourth-graders, the five big-city districts’ average score for black students was 190, a huge gap of 39 points. That is what the status quo has produced. Frighteningly, it appears to be acceptable to 100 percent of House Democrats.

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