Head Start Reforms Meet Resistance

Published September 1, 2003

On July 25, the House of Representatives voted 217-216 to approve H.R. 2210, the School Readiness Act. The measure reauthorizes Head Start, a federal program that provides nutritional, health, social, and academic services to 900,000 poor preschool children at 19,000 centers nationwide.

Although H.R. 2210 increases Head Start funding and calls for modest reforms, the proposed changes have generated significant opposition from those who want to maintain the current organization of the program.

The bill emphasizes cognitive development and school readiness, requires half of all Head Start teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree by 2008, and increases funding by $202 million, bringing the total to $6.87 billion a year.

“For the first time in nearly 40 years, we are addressing the readiness gap that separates Head Start children from their more advantaged peers,” said House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio).

The bill also grants civil rights protections for faith-based organizations that run Head Start programs, allowing them to hire employees according to their religious principles as guaranteed under the federal Civil Rights Act. Additionally, the legislation authorizes a pilot program to allow eight states to coordinate their Head Start programs with state-based early childhood education programs. Democrats opposed the pilot program, and all of them voted against it.

Increasing School Readiness

Since 1965, 20 million children have participated in Head Start. The program has the overall goal of “increasing the school readiness of young children in low-income families.”

Research findings on Head Start’s efficacy have been mixed. The newest federally funded survey of participating children and families in 1997 and 2000 found that while participating four-year-olds performed slightly higher on certain skills tests after one year, the average child scored only a little above the 20th percentile on tests of letter recognition, vocabulary, early mathematics, and writing. Last year, the Head Start program’s cost per child was $6,900.

“That’s a lot of expenditure for a little bit of progress,” according to House bill sponsor Representative Mike Castle (R-Delaware). A new $28 million research project tracking the progress of more than 4,700 children will be completed in 2006.

There are numerous state and federal early childhood programs besides Head Start. Currently, nine federal agencies administer 69 early childhood education and support programs. The cost of federal and state early childhood programs totals roughly $23 billion a year.

States have no legal authority to work with or improve Head Start programs, which are administered at the local level. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services documents a lack of coordination between Head Start and state-based preschool programs. The lack of coordination causes duplication of services, service gaps, and lack of communication and information-sharing.

The Head Start program has “become isolated from change and improvement,” according to Boehner.

Criticism Rejected

Sarah Greene, president and CEO of the National Head Start Association, opposes the House legislation. She contends the program already works well. Calling criticism of the program a “snake-oil sales pitch,” she sees the House bill as a “radical proposal that dismantles the federal government’s nearly four-decades-long commitment to getting at-risk children ready to learn.” The Association is seeking a substantial increase in funding for Head Start.

Two Head Start bills also have been introduced in the Senate, but neither contains the House pilot program. One bill, S. 1474 by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), would establish 200 “Centers of Excellence” to showcase effective programs around the nation. The other, S.1483 by Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut), would require all Head Start teachers to have four-year college degrees by 2008 and raise program funding to $16 billion by the same year. S. 1483 would not guarantee civil rights protections for faith-based Head Start providers.

Krista Kafer is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. Her email address is [email protected].