- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

The Head Start program for poor preschoolers is up for renewal before the Senate, having squeaked past the House in July with one vote.

It is not known whether the Senate will adopt all — or any — of the Bush administration’s reforms for the $6.6 billion program, which serves more than 900,000 children. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, led by Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, has not introduced a bill.

It’s a given, however, that Head Start’s protectors will fight to make sure the program isn’t changed in ways they don’t like. Television ads, sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund Action Council, began running last week, warning of the “dismantling” of Head Start.

The ads are the latest salvo in a “save Head Start” campaign that began early this year.

Head Start “is the most successful program in the war on poverty,” Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat and former Head Start teacher, told a Capitol Hill briefing in January. Republican changes to the program are ill-advised and “we must resist it, resist it, resist it,” she shouted to the room.

That begs the question: Why is the Bush administration attempting to change such a revered — and protected — program?

The short answer is because Head Start appears to be caught in a 1960s time warp.

Forty years ago, when millions of American children lived in severe poverty, it was believed if they received regular meals, immunizations, socialization skills, support for their families, plus some academics, they would be ready for kindergarten. This became Head Start’s mission.

Research now shows that health and social services are necessary — but insufficient — to prepare children for school, G. Reid Lyon, chief of the child development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, told a Senate hearing in July.

Kindergarten requires children to have strong foundational knowledge about language, reading, math and science. Head Start, as traditionally structured and implemented, is not fully achieving its purpose of promoting school readiness, Mr. Lyon said.

“This is unfortunate,” Mr. Lyon added, “because, with proper preschool instruction, [poor children] can enter school on an equal footing with every other child.”

The past 40 years have seen an explosion in the nation’s social services.

“When Head Start was founded in 1965, we didn’t have Medicaid, we didn’t have food stamps, we barely had a school lunch program,” said Ron Haskins, a scholar at Brookings Institution and former Bush administration official.

Today, there are many social-service programs and Head Start’s services are often redundant. A modernized Head Start should focus on education to ensure that low-income children come to school on equal footing with — instead of behind — other children, Mr. Haskins said.

These arguments pale when compared with the real heart of the battle, which is a power struggle over control of the program.

Head Start is the biggest government-funded early childhood program, but it has always operated outside state control, with funds flowing directly from Washington to local grantees.

The Bush administration and the House bill propose to experiment with this arrangement by creating a pilot program allowing up to eight governors, who meet strict eligibility rules, to meld Head Start into their existing preschool networks.

Republican supporters say the pilot program is necessary to force Head Start grantees to collaborate with states and allow governors to organize their early education programs.

Leaders of the National Head Start Association say the pilot program is nothing more than a brazen ploy to dismantle and ruin the program.

“The razor-thin one-vote margin” in the House “shows that there is no appetite” for this reform, NHSA President Sarah Greene said in July. The eight-state experiment “is a complete non-starter” in the Senate, she added confidently.

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