Head Start or Head Backwards?

Republican bill undercuts program that helps low-income children prepare for school

By Barbara Miner

Despite the Republican Party’s 23-vote margin in the U.S. House of Represent-atives, party leaders were worried this summer. Would they have enough votes to pass their highly partisan reauthorization of Head Start? Even some Repub-licans had criticized the House bill as an attempt to undermine and potentially dismantle the popular program.

The outlook worsened a few days before the scheduled vote when Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) suffered injuries to the eyes and face in a car crash. Doctors ordered a week of bed rest. Anxious Republican leaders substituted a bill that made some nominal changes and that picked up a few extra supporters. But victory was still uncertain.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) realized he would need Sullivan’s vote. He dispatched an aide to bring Sullivan to the Capitol in a wheelchair. Sullivan waited in DeLay’s office as lawmakers worked through the night to finish several major bills before their month-long summer recess. When the bells rang early Friday morning on July 25, and the Head Start bill came to the floor, Sullivan was wheeled into the chamber. He cast an “aye” vote.

Thus, by one vote, 217-216, conservative Republicans passed a bill which, if it becomes law, will mandate standardized testing for all Head Start children and launch a pilot plan to turn Head Start over to state control. Head Start supporters see the bill as an attack on a program that has served children well ever since it was initiated, almost 40 years ago, in response to the Civil Rights Movement’s demands for quality educational opportunities for low-income children.

Several moderate Republicans questioned why President Bush and House leaders are so insistent on changing a program that has strong grassroots and bipartisan political support. (In a federal “consumer satisfaction” survey several years ago, Head Start scored the highest of 29 public agencies.)

“The bottom line is I don’t know why we’re doing this,” said Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut who opposed the bill. “I feel we’re trying to fix something that’s not broken.”

Rep. George Miller of California, the leading Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee overseeing the bill, was more blunt. “It’s a very serious assault on the federal Head Start program,” he said. “It really rips the integrity out of what has made Head Start a successful program.”

The Senate will take up competing Democrat-and Republican-sponsored bills when it returns in September. Supporters of Head Start are hoping they will be able to ameliorate the worst aspects of the House bill and possibly increase funding so the program can better serve more children.

Head Start, first signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, currently serves 900,000 low-income children three and four years old – about 60 percent of those eligible – and attempts to give them a “head start” on success in school. It takes a comprehensive approach, combining education with health and social services. Head Start children attend half-day programs. They also receive immunizations, medical screenings, mental health services, and dental exams, and they are also assessed for speech or language impairments and other learning disabilities. Through its emphasis on serving families and on involving parents as volunteers and members of policy councils, Head Start also promotes community-parent involvement.

The program targets families at or below the poverty level. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, almost half of Head Start parents make less than $12,000 a year, more than a quarter have less than a high school diploma or a GED, and almost a quarter come from homes where English is not the primary language.

Criticisms of the Bush/Republican plan for Head Start center around three issues: insufficient money; a pilot program for turning the program over to the states via block grants; and a testing proposal that is inappropriate for young children and undermines the comprehensive aspects of Head Start. The House bill also allows faith-based providers to discriminate on grounds of religion in hiring employees. Thus, for instance, a Head Start program run by a fundamentalist Protestant group could refuse to hire Head Start employees, even janitors or secretaries, who were not “born again.”

Devil in the Dollars

The House bill calls for $6.8 billion in 2004, rising to $7.4 billion in 2008. Critics note the money barely covers inflation, let alone providing funding to expand the program. And it would be difficult or impossible at those funding levels to meet some of the bill’s more admirable requirements-for instance, that Head Start increase its collaboration with state-based preschool programs, or that half of all Head Start teachers have four-year college degrees by 2008 and the other half have associate degrees.

Take the issue of college-trained teachers. The average salary for a Head Start teacher with a bachelor’s degree in 2002 was $25,000, compared to the average kindergarten teacher salary of about $43,000. “It is unreasonable to expect that Head Start programs will be able to increase the proportion of teachers meeting higher formal education qualifications without addressing this salary differential,” notes the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Amy Wilkins, executive director of the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Trust for Early Education, estimates that Head Start would need an additional $2.2 billion a year in funding just to pay teachers competitive salaries.

If the House bill becomes law, Head Start providers fear they will be forced to reduce the number of children they serve in order to meet the bill’s new and more costly requirements.

Block Grants?

President Bush initially wanted to allow any state to take over Head Start via block grants, but a firestorm of protest forced the House to modify the proposal to a pilot program for eight states.

Head Start advocates are especially leery of turning the program over to the states, citing concerns about lower standards at the state level. For example, 30 states allow teachers in childcare centers to work with children without receiving any training in early childhood development, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. An analysis by the National Head Start Association found that only three states currently provide preschool programs with the comprehensive services required of Head Start programs.

Others worry that if Head Start is turned over to the states, its focus on low-income children will be jeopardized and federal support for the program will decrease. According to a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), federal funds are eight times more likely than state funds to target the poorest children. The GAO has also found that when the federal government ends its direct involvement in a program and instead provides block grants to states, there is a subsequent erosion in federal funding.

Testing Mania

One of the most controversial proposals in the Bush/Republican plan is to require standardized testing of children heading for kindergarten, rather than relying on the current practice of random sampling and teacher-based assessments.

Many childhood development experts worry that standardized testing of preschoolers is not only inappropriate, but will easily lead to skewed results that could be used to defund centers that do not teach to the test. Others worry that an over-emphasis on literacy will detract from the program’s comprehensive focus on not only the educational but also the social, nutritional, and medical needs of young children.

Under the proposal, all Head Start 4-year-olds would be evaluated in the fall with a battery of assessments, and then again in the spring to measure improvement.

Samuel J. Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute for child development affiliated with Loyola University Chicago – and often considered the country’s leading expert on assessment of young children – argues that such testing “will not work. It won’t be meaningful data.”

Meisels, who is on a panel to review the Bush administration reporting system, said the proposal “looks like high stakes. It sounds like high stakes. It is high stakes.”

Head Start supporters are particularly concerned because early news about the assessment suggested that it would be used to evaluate local Head Start contracts. As the Children’s Defense Fund warned, “Experts on child assessment agree that the specific testing approach for young children proposed by the Bush Administration will inevitably lead to ‘teaching to the test,’ a narrowing of curriculum, and encouraging teachers to neglect critical components of children’s growth and learning.”

What’s Next?

Head Start advocates have launched a public education and lobbying campaign, with current efforts focused on the Senate in an attempt to protect Head Start from the worst of the Republican proposals. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), often considered the most powerful advocate for education in the Senate, has introduced a bill that expands monies for Head Start and calls for improvements within its current structure as a federal, not state, program.

“It makes no sense to start down a totally new path with a program that’s been proven effective by three full decades of research,” said Kennedy. “Why would anyone want to turn Head Start into Slow Start or No Start?”

Head Start is one of several priorities the Senate is expected to take up in the fall, and the specifics of legislation are likely to change as reauthorization winds through committee hearings and floor debate. Several children’s advocacy groups are monitoring developments, with updates and action alerts posted on their websites. For up-to-date information, contact the National Head Start Association at www.nhsa.org, or the Children’s Defense Fund at www.childrensdefense.org.

Barbara Miner ( barbaraminer@ameritech.net ) is a freelance education writer and the former managing editor for Rethinking Schools.