- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A House committee yesterday unanimously passed a Head Start bill that requires the $6.7 billion federal preschool program to cooperate more closely with states, but doesn’t allow governors to control the program.

The bill now goes to the House floor, where a debate is expected over “charitable choice” hiring provisions in the measure. Those provisions would recognize the right of religious groups that run Head Start programs to hire employees of their choice, even if it means they only hire members of their own faiths. Democrats say “religious discrimination” will occur.

Yesterday’s bipartisan support for the Head Start bill stood in stark contrast to the 2003 House Head Start bill, which would have allowed some governors to take control of the program. Democrats panned the 2003 bill, and it passed the House by one vote.

The new bill demonstrates Republican “willingness to be flexible where possible without compromising on principle,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The new bill requires more cooperation between Head Start and state-run early-childhood programs and puts a new emphasis on academics — both goals of the Bush administration.

It also requires more financial accountability among Head Start grantees and sets up a system where poorly performing grantees may have to compete again for their grants. It also requires Head Start teachers to have college degrees.

Democrats praised the bill as greatly improved but still flawed, especially in its funding, which allocates $6.7 billion for fiscal 2006 and “such sums as may be necessary” for future years.

Head Start teachers need a salary increase, said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and ranking minority member of the committee.

“The average salary for a Head Start teacher with a bachelor’s degree is about $25,000 a year,” he said. “Nothing stops those teachers from taking a job in a kindergarten classroom that pays much more.”

During yesterday’s session, Democrats tried to pass an amendment to increase Head Start funding by $1.6 billion a year, reaching $16.7 billion a year by 2011. But that amendment, as well as another to spend $340 million a year to boost teacher salaries, failed.

Democrats also warned Republicans not to “insert religious discrimination” into the Head Start bill when it comes before the full House.

“Head Start began as a civil rights platform, ensuring that all children, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion, have a fair opportunity to succeed in education and life,” Mr. Miller said. “To allow Head Start grantees to deny employment to teachers on the basis of their religion would fly in the face of the program’s spirit.”

Mr. Boehner said that charitable-choice religious hiring provisions have been successfully added to other federal programs and he would “let the House speak on this issue once again.”

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