WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is warning Head Start centers not to aid lobbying efforts to defeat its proposed overhaul of the preschool program for the poor. The centers' national association, which vehemently opposes the administration's plans, says the warning amounts to an unconstitutional attempt to silence critics.
Federal law bans using government money or staff time to lobby Congress. But if a Head Start teacher talks to a Head Start mother about legislation and urges her to call her representative in Congress, is that lobbying?
Federal officials say maybe yes, maybe no. But just in case, they say, they sent a letter warning Head Start centers of the provisions of the Hatch Act, which bars certain political activity.
Guidance issued several years ago by the Health and Human Services Department explains that nonprofit organizations that get government grants -- including Head Start centers -- cannot use their federal dollars to directly lobby Congress. It also bans ''grass-roots lobbying concerning either federal or state legislation.''
The current dispute began after the National Head Start Association sent its members a flier to help inform parents about issues in the legislative debate over what changes should be made when Head Start is renewed.
President Bush wants to give states the option to take over Head Start programs, now directed by Health and Human Services, and mix them with existing state-funded preschool programs. Opponents worry that states will use the federal dollars to cut state preschool funding and that important quality standards will be diminished.
The flier for parents outlines these concerns and urges them to lobby members of Congress and to alert local media. It closes by promising that staff ''will help you with your activities.''
After seeing the flier, a top federal Head Start official wrote centers to warn them of the Hatch Act. Federal officials were concerned about that final clause suggesting that Head Start staff will be involved in the lobbying, said Windy Hill, associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau, part of Health and Human Services.
''Simply stated, the request . . . appears to encourage Head Start programs to use Head Start program funds and/or staff in a manner that is in direct violation of the laws that govern your political activities,'' Hill wrote to centers.
In an interview, Hill would not say what activities are in or out of bounds, saying centers have attorneys they can consult for guidance.
The national association interpreted the letter as a threat to workers' First Amendment free speech rights.
''Head Start has been around for 38 years and no previous administration has ever seen fit to twist and contort the federal laws in order to justify what appears to be an unconstitutional attempt to silence the critics of its proposal,'' said Ron Herndon, chairman of the association.
Copyright © 2003, The Associated Press