House lawmakers debate state role in Head Start management

Republicans and Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Education Reform Subcommittee kicked off their discussion Tuesday on reauthorization of the Head Start program with a partisan debate over GOP plans to allow states to administer funding for the preschool program.

Democrats on the subcommittee repeatedly emphasized their opposition to a provision in the proposed reauthorization bill of Subcommittee Chairman Michael Castle, R-Del., that would set up a demonstration project for states to exercise greater control over the program, which serves over 900,000 poor children under the age of five. The demonstration project was included in the bill at the urging of the Bush administration.

Republicans on the subcommittee expressed lukewarm support for the project, but Castle said he is willing to compromise and would work with Democrats to tighten requirements on states chosen to participate. Still, Castle said that the proposal was well-intentioned, and aimed to boost the efficient delivery of preschool services by allowing states to combine their own preschool programs with Head Start. "Head Start does wonderful things," Castle said. "My question is: Could Head Start do even more?"

Castle cited figures from the Health and Human Services Department's Family and Child Experiences Survey of Head Start children that found that Head Start children made only marginal gains in literacy and mathematics during their time in the program. For example, he said, Head Start children ranked in the 16th percentile of children nationally in vocabulary when entering the program, and left at the 23rd percentile. In mathematics, the Head Start children entered at the 17th percentile and left at the 19th.

Even so, the plan to allow states to administer Head Start has sparked vociferous lobbying by the National Head Start Association, the Virginia group that represents local Head Start directors in Washington. It argues that most state-run preschool programs fail to meet Head Start's quality standards and should not be trusted to oversee the program.

Helga Lemke, executive director of a California Head Start program, testified Tuesday that the Castle bill, as drafted, would not even require states to meet current Head Start performance standards to participate in the demonstration project. "Cash-strapped states can't be counted on to maintain the same comprehensive services that Head Start offers," she said.

From the panelists' discussion, it was clear that Castle's other major proposal to require that 50 percent of Head Start teachers hold a bachelors degree by 2008 is far less controversial. Amy Wilkins, executive director of the Trust for Early Education, said that increasing the quality of Head Start teachers would be the most effective thing that the federal government could do to improve outcomes for Head Start children. Members of the panel, Republicans and Democrats alike, agreed that the federal government would have to increase pay for Head Start teachers to attract and retain degree-holding teachers. Wilkins estimated that the cost could reach $2.2 billion by 2008.

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