Head Start’s Future: Perspectives from the Bush Administration, Congress, States, Advocates and Researchers

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The Bush Administration’s proposal to give states more control over funds for Head Start programs met with strong resistance at a May 7 forum hosted by the Brookings Institution. President Bush’s efforts to make significant changes in the program are just the most recent proposals for change to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s domestic program, which is essentially unchanged since it was established in 1965. Since Head Start is up for reauthorization this year, policy experts and Head Start practitioners met to discuss the program’s future and the impact of the possible program revisions. Currently, the program serves almost 1 million children with a budget of nearly $7 billion.

Margaret Spellings, Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, insisted that there was no effort to undermine or weaken the program that serves low-income 3- and 4-year-olds. But since there was very little ability for the states to communicate with the federal government on this popular program, Spellings said the administration wants to give states, regions or communities the opportunity to be more active. She added that the proposal would maintain the current level of social, health and nutrition services and stipulate a system of accountability.

Congressman George Miller (D-CA) protested Spellings’ remarks, saying that “states haven’t embraced the idea and haven’t stepped up” to the plate. As the Senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, he cited the current trend of states cutting their foster care, education and social services budgets and warned the same could happen to Head Start if the states had more control of funding.

“To suggest that we’ve met the quality assurances of this program is false,” Miller added, saying he feared the program would get diluted.

He said that handing control of Head Start over to states was “like handing your children over to Michael Jackson.”

Congressman Michael Castle (R-DE), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce subcommittee, defended Head Start as “doing more than a good job” but conceded that Head Start children are not at the same level as other kids their age.

State experts also had much to say about the need for better coordination between states and the federal government and their fears that the President’s proposal would weaken Head Start.

Dr. Edward Zigler, Director of Yale’s Center in Child Development and Social Policy, asserted that handing control over to states would be “an unacceptable risk to 900,000 children” enrolled in the program and that improving Head Start “can be achieved by less Draconian means.”

Zigler, who developed Head Start’s first Performance Standards, said that all evidence indicates that federally-run programs are superior to state-run pre-K programs and that states have never been able to mount quality control, pointing to recent pre-K program cuts in Massachusetts, Tennessee and a proposal for cuts in New York.

Head Start currently requires 50 percent of its teachers to hold an Associates degree, but experts like Zigler contend that the program should attract teachers with a Bachelor’s degree if the quality of the program is to improve. He believes the President’s current proposal of a 2 percent pay increase would not be sufficient to meet that goal.

Zigler proposed a task force led by Dr. Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary for Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, to explore possibilities for improving Head Start.

Mississippi’s Superintendent of Education Henry Johnson was ambivalent about the proposal to shift funding to states but added that public policy should not be made without the input of Head Start program officials. Anything less, he said, would be “disastrous.”

One such official, Ron Hearndon, Director of the Albina Head Start Program in Portland, Oregon, spoke not only about the current President’s proposal but proposals from other Administrations. Borrowing on nearly 30 years’ experience, Hearndon pointed to the common mistake of the past few Administrations to change Head Start programs without significant input from experts in the field.

He noted that the Carter administration wanted to bring Head Start under the Department of Education, an idea that “didn’t fly;” the Reagan administration admitted that Head Start was the most cost-effective federal program but then had a proposal to get rid of the program (Oregon teachers and parents came to Capitol Hill to fight against the proposal); the Clinton administration did not heed counsel to form a committee first before introducing legislation altering Head Start.

Hearndon complained that different criteria were being used to gauge the program’s effectiveness. He said every administration told Head Start practitioners not to teach children how to read and recalled a time during his tenure when Head Start program directors were instructed to either take down all letters of the alphabet in their classrooms or arrange them haphazardly. He said it was no wonder why Head Start programs across the country scored poorly by literacy standards.

Helen Blank of Child Care Strategies called the proposal a 9-months injection and said that the federal government needed to fully fund Head Start, instead of cutting 200,000 children from the program. Blank noted that ten states had cut their pre-K programs and that consequently, thousands of children would be ill prepared for school. Blank pointed out that Washington D.C. lower income families could not even apply for financial assistance.

Currently 53,000 children are on Florida’s waiting list for pre-K and teachers in 31 states do not even have a program of early childhood education. Furthermore, the teacher’s salary is a mere $16,500. In addition to these problems, state licensing programs are being cut back, which severely affects accountability.

Blank pointed to North Carolina as a Head Start success story, lauding former Governor Jim Hunt’s efforts to coordinate and head up resources. However, severe state cuts threaten the viability of the program and more kids are on the waiting list for Head Start.

In terms of research conducted on Head Start programs, James Gallagher of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill proposed the creation of a task force to look at Head Start and pre-school incentives for states to become more involved. The Kenan Professor of Education said that a successful Head Start program needed quality support system, personnel preparation, technical assistance, applied research and program evaluation, communication, demonstration, data systems, comprehensive planning, and coordination of support elements.

Gallagher noted that the “federal government should fund Head Start” and it should be a major government priority.

Craig Ramey, Founding Director of the Georgetown University’s Center for Research on Children in the United States, agreed that more coordination was needed between states and the federal government in order to adequately assess the children’s progress. He highlighted three major problems: linguistic diversity, lack of culturally and linguistically competent teachers and administers, and lack of validated assessment instruments.

Ramey called for “vigorous bipartisan leadership” to debate specific proposals in order to see Head Start improvements.

The final researcher to comment on the challenges of Head Start was Lynn Karoly, Director of Labor and Population Program and Professor of Economics, RAND. Karoly admitted that much research had been conducted to find the benefits of pre-K programs to be higher levels of school attainment, less criminal activity, and less grade repetition. The benefits are obviously worth the investment, she said.

Karoly admitted Head Start had received much scrutiny and that the program did not have the same solid cost-benefit analysis as pre-K programs. She said that Head Start research had been shown to have a modest impact on children but attributed this to a smaller investment made in the program. For example, children attending a half-day program would not reap the benefits that children attending a full-day program would. But if a greater investment is made into Head Start like making the program available to all children – Karoly believes we would see increased returns.

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