Head Start Under Assault

Who would have thought a 40-year-old program that has helped millions of our nation's poorest preschoolers get a head start could come under attack? Despite its many successes, recorded by researchers and lived by families, Head Start's future is now uncertain as policy-makers debate a Bush-administration proposal that could effectively dismantle the cherished program. This debate badly misses the mark.

While some policy-makers have set their sights on Head Start, millions of low-income children still do not have the benefit of a strong early-education experience. A Head Start teacher still earns roughly half the salary of a kindergarten teacher. Meanwhile, the discussion in Washington focuses on moving the management of Head Start from the federal government to the states and narrowing the program's services, assuming that these changes will somehow yield the kind of early-childhood system our country needs for poor children.

Since 1965, Head Start has been serving the children who should be at the very top of our school-readiness agenda. Most of them come from families below the poverty level (barely $15,000 a year for a family of three). More than 10 percent have disabilities, one in five has been exposed to violence, and more than a quarter have a primary language other than English. In nearly 80 percent of Head Start families, neither parent has more than a high-school degree or GED.

Not surprisingly, these children tend to miss out on many enriching developmental experiences -- reading and art, trips to the library or zoo -- common for more affluent children. As "Parsing the Achievement Gap," a report from the Educational Testing Service, shows, other issues beyond the schoolhouse door -- low birth weight, television watching, exposure to environmental hazards, inadequate parental attention -- compound the problem. Together, these many disadvantages not only affect children's school readiness; they impede their long-term chances for success throughout the school years.

Head Start's founders were remarkably prescient in recognizing these factors. They designed a program that helps poor children catch up by tackling the complexity of broader family circumstances. While classroom teaching focuses on language, literacy, and math-readiness skills, social workers also help stressed families cope with unstable jobs, abusive relationships, inadequate housing, and depression. Health workers ensure that children are screened and receive medical and dental care. And parent-involvement staff help parents become partners in their children's education.

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Two years ago, the Bush administration proposed to "devolve" the federal Head Start program, giving its funds to states to administer their own preschool programs. The plan, still under debate in Congress, lacks a guarantee that Head Start's comprehensive services and standards will continue. The original plan contradicted the administration's own focus on literacy, omitting any requirement that teachers move toward a bachelor's degree. While the House has since passed a bill phasing in that requirement, it does not include the funds to help teachers earn degrees or to raise their salaries. Worse, it offers no new funds for the next five years to reach any of the 3 million eligible children who are not enrolled in Head Start and Early Head Start. This is a plan that comes up short both on quality and investment.

If Congress enacts the Bush plan, cash-strapped states -- even those with the best intentions -- would feel serious pressure to dilute Head Start's comprehensive approach in order to reach more children. Currently, 40 states invest their own funds in pre-kindergarten. Expansion of state pre-K programs warrants strong support. But the track record to date suggests that simply providing states more flexibility will not lead to the high-quality program our poorest children need, nor to the comprehensive approach we expect from Head Start.

Meanwhile, the administration now mandates that all 4-year-olds in Head Start take part in a new, standardized assessment in literacy and math. These tests have been widely criticized -- indeed, even by members of the administration's own advisory panel. The administration has also proposed halving the program's training funds and eliminating support for areas such as health and parent involvement.

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The Bush proposal falls far short as a plan for Head Start's future. Efforts to strengthen Head Start must continue to recognize that the dichotomy between cognitive and social-emotional development is a false one, and that the best early-childhood programs must cultivate both. We must also expand the program's reach to serve more low-income children, and to ensure that Head Start focuses on the needs of hard-pressed working families and child development. A progressive agenda for building the program's many strengths and shoring up its weak points should target these areas:

Bolstering quality. Head Start teachers should have bachelor's degrees in early-childhood education. This will require a significant new investment, but it is doable. Beginning in 1998, new funding enabled Head Start to meet the congressional goal of having at least half of all teachers attain associate's degrees by 2003. Added funding could help teachers obtain their degrees and compensate them enough so that they stay with Head Start. It should also fund more teacher training and support in improved curricula and teaching practices. To ensure quality, monitoring of Head Start should remain rigorous, and poor performing programs should continue to be replaced.

Better program coordination. Today, many families are eligible for several publicly funded early-childhood programs -- subsidized child care and pre-K as well as Head Start. Yet millions of children are still not served for lack of funding. Moreover, both Head Start and state pre-K programs are structured mainly to provide part-day services, not reflecting the needs of working families. Given these gaps, better coordination of the resources we have is essential to help children get a solid early-learning experience and to help parents work. State and local planning efforts should follow the lead of innovative administrators who have successfully woven these programs together for children and families.

Modernizing eligibility. No preschool child who needs Head Start should be turned away. Currently, only about half of eligible preschool-age children can participate. In the wake of federal welfare reform, many other families previously eligible for Head Start now earn a few dollars too many to qualify. Their children still need the Head Start experience. Head Start's eligibility guidelines have not been raised since 1965. It is time to boost them.

Helping working families. The program cannot ignore the increasingly complex needs of the 72 percent of Head Start families in which parents are working. This means offering more full-day, 10-hour programs, or informal and flexible child care paired with part-day Head Start to accommodate odd work schedules. Increases in Head Start and child-care funding could help programs extend their hours.

Expanding Early Head Start. Research clearly demonstrates that very early intervention has the greatest impact on children's lives. Yet only 3 percent of eligible infants and toddlers can benefit from Early Head Start because of limited funding. Additional funding should be targeted to Early Head Start, and qualified programs should be permitted to serve more infants and toddlers if these programs already are reaching all of the 3- and 4-year-olds in their community who need help.

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Head Start has a laser-like focus on the children who need the most intensive help. As a national program, it can also quickly implement the research-based practices that are likely to have the biggest impact on early education. With its balanced approach to learning and child development, Head Start must remain at the heart of our efforts to build a strong early-childhood system in America. Increasing funding for and strengthening both Head Start and Early Head Start are critical pieces of any real plan to close the achievement gap, a plan that must also include investments and reforms in other efforts to strengthen schools, families, and communities.

Helen Blank is the director of leadership and public policy at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C.