Published on Monday, July 7, 2003 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
Some Fear Ruin for Head Start
See Disaster in Bill to Raise States' Role
by Lily Hindy
WASHINGTON - - New York Head Start officials fear that a bill pending in the House to transfer control of Head Start funds from communities to the states will destroy the program, particularly in New York.
Advocates of the program say the Republican proposal would allow cash-starved states to merge Head Start funds with funding for existing state programs and would loosen current federal monitoring requirements.
Regional Head Start president Ruth Neale said last week that the bill may "destroy Head Start programs across the United States, but particularly here in New York," where Gov. George Pataki has tried to cut funding for pre-kindergarten programs.
Supporters of the bill say it would simply improve a good program that has had no major changes since its inception nearly 40 years ago. Parker Hamilton, a House Republican spokeswoman, said sending the money to the states would help get rid of confusing overlapping situations with state-run pre-kindergarten programs. But Neale fears that allowing budget-strapped states to administer the money will result in reduced funding for Head Start programs, as "states' priorities lie elsewhere."
"With the severe budget problems currently facing most states, [they] are not in a position to administer something this complex and resource-rich at this time," Neale said.
In what has become a contentious debate, advocacy groups for Head Start have strongly resisted recent attempts by congressional Republicans to restructure the program.
Early last month, the Bush administration released a report by the Department of Health and Human Services showing that Head Start children had not been improving enough in school-readiness. Soon after, the House Committee on Education and the work force passed a Head Start reauthorization bill to the floor, saying its goals are to strengthen its academics, require new teacher qualification standards, and allow states to better coordinate existing childhood programs with Head Start programs.
The National Head Start Association, an advocacy group for the program, called the health and human services report a "stale rehash of convenient slivers of information," and one of many "desperate attempts" to gain support for the bill. Rather than improving the program, the advocacy group says, the legislation will neglect comprehensive services, parent involvement and overall quality performance standards.
President George W. Bush originally planned for all 50 states to participate, but in the House bill eight states will be chosen for the five-year pilot program, allowing them to administer Head Start funds. New York will probably be one of them, Neale said. Currently, Head Start funds are granted directly to community groups from the federal government under the condition that programs meet tough federal performance standards.
The bill requires that when states are given control of the funds, "the State standards generally meet or exceed the standards that ensure the quality and effectiveness of programs operated by Head Start."
Deputy Director Jean Davis from the Economic Opportunity Commission of Nassau County's Head Start program is skeptical about this vague language.
"When it crosses to the state level, [the states] can create their own standards," said Davis. "There are no guarantees. The resulting damage will be too much on the families."
Davis, whose commission runs eight programs in Nassau County serving 560 at-risk children, says that without the strictly enforced federal standards, services provided will not be nearly as extensive. She is particularly concerned about the quality of nutrition and health care Head Start children receive.
In 2002 New York cut investments in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, and this year Pataki tried to do it again, but was blocked by the legislature. If New York is given control of Head Start funds, Davis worries they will become a "pot of money" that will go to other programs. States will be able to better coordinate Head Start programs with existing pre-school programs under the bill, which its sponsors say will eliminate some confusion for parents in deciding which is best for their children. Advocates are worried that parent involvement, one thing Head Start prides itself on, will decline as its programs become coordinated with other existing programs. Peter Chin, a single parent who has one child currently enrolled in Freeport Head Start, is concerned about the pending legislation. "Everyone feels comfortable with people at EOC Head Start. If states take over I think that many parents will shy away from going into these programs."
The bill should be voted on in the House in coming weeks, and went through the subcommittee and committee with approval on strict party lines. It may have a harder time in the Senate.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.