- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

The same folks that led the unsuccessful opposition to welfare reform in 1996 are now targeting Republican efforts to reform Head Start, the federal government’s $6.8 billion preschool program for the poor. When President Clinton finally signed the Republican-controlled Congress’ historic welfare-reform legislation, Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) President Marian Wright Edelman harshly denounced Mr. Clinton.

Now that President Bush and another Republican-controlled Congress are seeking to administer some badly needed reform to the Head Start program, Mrs. Edelman is once again making wild charges. “The Bush administration’s plan uses state flexibility as a guise to weaken crucial protections for poor children,” Mrs. Edelman said. It’s worth noting that state flexibility provided the foundation for the immensely successful welfare-reform legislation. Having been so wrong on welfare reform, CDF has reduced credibility when mounting new attacks.

The goals of Head Start, which was created in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society, were laudable. Research, however, has demonstrated that whatever cognitive benefits children derive from it tend to fade quickly. The Bush administration has rightly concluded that “low-income children continue to perform significantly below their more advantaged peers in reading and mathematics once they enter school.”

During his 2000 presidential campaign, Mr. Bush repeatedly identified “the soft bigotry of low expectations” as today’s biggest source of racial discrimination. “Reading is the new civil right,” he emphasized. Reforming Head Start to provide greater emphasis on developing long-term cognitive skills is essential if another major goal of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law — ensuring that every child can read at grade level by the third grade — is to be achieved.

Last week, the House Education and Workforce subcommittee on education reform approved a bill that would increase Head Start’s focus on literacy and academics and improve teacher quality in the program, which serves more than 900,000 disadvantaged children at a cost of about $7,000 per child. The bill includes a provision that would grant unprecedented flexibility to as many as eight states to coordinate their own well-financed preschool programs with the federally funded Head Start program, which is now administered locally.

If the “readiness gap” is to be eliminated, Head Start must be reformed. Unhelpful in achieving these worthy goals is the self-righteousness displayed by the self-appointed — and widely discredited — “child advocates” epitomized by Mrs. Edelman and many congressional Democrats.

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