Don't Mess With Head Start's Success

Kay Mills is the author of "Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start."

Head Start works. A government study in 2001 showed that the federal preschool program for children from low-income families improved participants' vocabulary and writing skills and narrowed the gap between them and more affluent youngsters. Last year, a San Bernardino County study found that kindergarten students who had gone through Head Start scored 9% better in literacy than students from similar backgrounds who had not participated in the program. They were also 9.6% better in language skills and 7.3% better in math skills. And they were absent from school 4.5 fewer days than their peers who hadn't gone through the program. Other research has shown that Head Start children are less likely to need special education services, less likely to repeat grades and more likely to graduate from high school.

Most experts agree that Head Start, which this year served 905,000 children, 104,000 of them in California, prepares needy kids for school. So why do some House Republicans and the Bush administration want to start experimenting with the program?

Head Start has always been an unusual combination. On the one hand, each classroom must conform to strict federal standards governing everything from the child-teacher ratio to the involvement of parents in program decision-making. But local control is also one of the bedrock principles of Head Start. When the Johnson administration started the program in 1965, it bypassed state governments, knowing that some, such as those in Alabama and Mississippi, would not run integrated programs. Instead, the administration worked with local, nonprofit civic organizations, school systems and tribal groups.

This local control has continued, and today 1,570 organizations nationwide adapt Head Start to the needs of their own communities, in cities, suburbs, small towns and farming communities and on Indian reservations.

All that would change if the House version of the current reauthorization bill for Head Start, passed last summer, is ultimately signed into law. New rules would allow for block grants to as many as eight states, which would then be able to manage the programs within their borders as pilot projects. Such grants, which the legislation calls "demonstration projects," could remove both the local control so integral to the program and the federal oversight that's key to its ongoing quality. And all with a program that is highly successful as is.

According to analysis by the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, the legislation "does not require that state demonstration programs follow the federal Head Start program performance standards that currently govern the nature, quality and intensity of services provided to low-income children." These performance standards cover not only student-teacher ratios and parent involvement but also teacher training, health screening and other aspects of the program. Instead, the House bill is vague on which services state-run Head Starts should provide. Head Start advocates repeatedly asked that the language be clarified, said Mark Greenberg, the center's policy director. The fact that the sponsors were not willing to make the bill's language explicit on this point suggested to him that they weren't willing to commit to requiring states to follow the federal standards. That's a step backward.

Another reason to be nervous is that block grants have a problematic history. Take the case of welfare-to-work programs. In 1996, Congress put money to support child-care programs for mothers trying to return to the workforce into block grants under the program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Last year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington reported that more than 35 states had made cuts in programs financed by these funds. Louisiana, for example, increased the amount parents must pay as their share of child care under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Michigan cut payments to child-care providers. There is language, of course, in the Head Start bill that says the money must go for its intended purposes, but there's no meaningful enforcement procedure.

Head Start advocates are particularly worried that, with state budgets increasingly tight, legislatures would find ways to redirect Head Start funds from the block grants. Thirty states are projecting a combined total of about $40 billion in budget shortfalls, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, with $15 billion of that amount in California alone. Head Start's supporters also worry because, in the past, Congress has tended to lose interest in programs it no longer controlled and consequently reduced their funding.

The shift to block grants was not included in the Senate committee version of a bill sent to the floor last fall. But it still could be introduced as an amendment when the bill is considered by the full Senate this spring or when the House and Senate versions are resolved before being sent to the president. The administration is known to strongly favor state control of poverty dollars as well as to advocate shrinking the federal role in providing services to the poor. All of which makes Head Start's supporters nervous.

None of this is to suggest that the preschool program couldn't be improved. Mark Real, who heads, notes that Head Start "needs to provide better-trained teachers and align its curriculum with local standards." But he doesn't think block grants are the way to accomplish this. "School readiness is a national program which requires a nationwide initiative. Simply providing more flexibility to states with budget problems will not prepare more children to do well in school."

On its face, the new legislation addresses the need for better Head Start teachers: The House bill mandates that half would need to have baccalaureate degrees by 2008; the Senate deadline is 2010. These are fine goals, but unless enough money is put into Head Start to increase pay for teachers, those who earn degrees will take them down the street to the local elementary school, where they will be better rewarded.

The House bill would authorize increasing the current Head Start budget of $6.7 billion to $6.98 billion for the 2005 fiscal year, and the Senate measure calls for $7.2 billion in fiscal 2005. But these figures are only authorizations -- that is, approval for Congress to allocate this much money -- not actual appropriations, which come later and are not certain as the federal deficit climbs. Nor is the increase enough to make basic improvements to the program.

Today, Head Start serves only about 60% of the children who are eligible. If President Bush really wants no child left behind, as he insists, his goal should be to find ways to serve more youngsters and pay Head Start teachers higher salaries rather than trying to slough control of the program off to the states, which may well not be up to the job.

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