- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

A bill to renew the Head Start program passed a Senate committee with unanimous support yesterday, in contrast to the House’s version, which passed this summer without any Democratic votes.

Still, enough issues remain unresolved about the federal preschool program for poor children that Congress may postpone its final votes until next year, aides said.

At the session yesterday, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, said the panel’s bill improves the $6.7 billion program in many ways.

He said it sets new educational standards, requires degrees of more teachers and mandates that Head Start centers work more closely with state-run early-education networks.

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy G. Thompson yesterday complimented the Senate committee’s efforts to improve Head Start’s school-readiness rules, but added that “the administration prefers the approach in the House bill.”

A House aide explained that the House bill offers more flexibility in deciding what Head Start children must be taught.

The Senate bill also limits Head Start salaries to no more than what the HHS secretary earns, which is $171,900.

“Recently, we have heard outrageous stories of Head Start funds — dollars that are specifically set aside for children — being used to pay exorbitant salaries, unnecessary travel and even leases on luxury vehicles for Head Start directors,” Mr. Gregg said.

In his comments on the Senate bill, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said, “Congress has an obligation to send the president a final bill that will allow states and communities to prevent financial abuses in the Head Start program that cheat teachers and disadvantaged children.”

Mr. Boehner also reiterated the need for a House-passed provision that would allow up to eight governors the right to oversee Head Start programs in their states.

The Senate bill does not authorize any state to control Head Start, but sets new rules requiring regular reviews and “unannounced inspections” of all program centers, regular “open competitions” for most Head Start contracts, and gubernatorial approval of new Head Start grantees.

Although he praised the bill in general, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, yesterday decried its “silence” on an HHS plan to require a math and literacy test of all 4-year-olds in Head Start centers.

The National Reporting System, which is still in a pilot phase, is not ready to go national, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat. Its questions are “culturally insensitive,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.

For instance, she said, children are asked in the test to point to a picture of “a swamp” or “a farm,” and urban children who have not seen such sites may find the question difficult.

Mr. Gregg said the bill is silent on the testing system because thousands of Head Start children have been tested “and I don’t think we should hold it up.”

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