Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, blasted the Bush administration's plan to turn responsibility for the Head Start program over to the states, and said the proposal-if implemented-would be "sort of like handing your children over to Michael Jackson."
Speaking at a forum held Wednesday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, Miller said that the administration plan was a "nonstarter" that would dilute the quality of Head Start services. He said that most state governments have no track record of running successful programs for poor preschoolers.
Launched in 1965, Head Start provides healthcare, nutrition and educational services for low-income preschoolers between the ages of three and five. It is run by the Administration for Children and Families within the Health and Human Services Department, but is operated in nearly 70,000 Head Start centers and classrooms across the country.
Responding to Miller, Margaret Spellings, assistant to President Bush for domestic policy, defended the president's proposal. "Maybe we have a fundamental disagreement about the role of the states," she said. "State governors want to serve these children well."
Spellings added that Bush has no desire to dilute the quality of Head Start services. "There is no effort afoot to destroy, undermine or weaken Head Start," she said. She noted that Bush's plan would distribute federal funds to states interested in managing their own Head Start programs, but it would also set stringent accountability standards. States would be required to provide the same healthcare, nutrition and educational services that Head Start currently provides, and would also be required to evaluate the progress of children going through their programs.
The primary benefit of the Bush plan, she said, would be to allow states to better coordinate services that they currently provide to preschoolers with the Head Start program. Currently, she said, there is no requirement for Head Start programs to coordinate with these state-run programs.
Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Education Reform Subcommittee-the subcommittee where the reauthorization process will begin-said he doubted that Congress would adopt the administration plan as drafted, but added that he sees room for compromise. He noted that both Miller and Spellings agree that Head Start programs can do more to coordinate with state-run programs, even if the Bush plan is not adopted. "Head Start is doing a good job, a very good job, but it can do an excellent job," he said.