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Published: Saturday, 2/15/2003

Handicapping Head Start

Turns out the President's much-ballyhooed “Leave No Child Behind” education reform plan may indeed leave children behind. The federal Head Start program is in for a budget shakeup that could lead to its dismantling in many states.

The White House wants to make wholesale changes in the way the pre-school program for poor children is funded and run. Instead of keeping direct control of Head Start in federal hands, the administration aims to shift responsibility to the states.

Funding would come in the form of a block grant that states could administer as they saw fit. The federal Education Department would assume oversight duties of the program from Health and Human Services.

There are two problems with both changes. One, cash-strapped states are fast looting monies from programs and agencies that are not specifically nailed down for other priorities. Block grants for the poor - who have little pull in budget negotiations - will likely be used for other purposes, like plugging gaping holes in state budgets.

Second, moving Head Start to Education mitigates the comprehensive mission of the program that also ministers to the nutritional, medical, and emotional needs of disadvantaged children and attempts to impart life skills to help in their advancement.

In other words, while education is an important element of the preschool program, it is not the only part of a system that prepares nearly 1 million poor kids for kindergarten.

But all that may be moot if the Bush Administration succeeds in turning Head Start into a block grant program, allowing states to replace Head Start providers as beneficiaries of the federal funds. To save money, states could conceivably reduce Head Start services or merge them with existing state programs.

States may also be given the discretion to devise their own standards for the pre-schools that differ from the uniform rules employed by Head Start. Pre-school programs already vary widely in quality from state to state.

Under the guise of giving states more flexibility to craft their own programs and eliminate waste and duplication, the Bush Administration is setting a success story backward.

Head Start children need all the help they can get and the program that gives them the tools to escape their poverty can certainly be improved and expanded upon. Today it can't even serve all who are eligible.

But if President Bush's budget proposals pass, even more low-income children who could benefit from early development programs like Head Start might be left behind.



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