I'M RE-READING George Orwell's classic dystopian novel, "1984," so I may be a bit sensitive to official language that masks what's really going on. In the bleak world of "1984," as you may remember, the Ministry of Truth publishes lies, the Ministry of Love tortures people and the Ministry of Peace wages perpetual war.
I'm hardly the first to notice that the Bush administration has excelled at using language to say one thing and mean its opposite -- now popularly known as doublespeak. The "Healthy Forests" program, for example, allows increased logging of protected wilderness. The "Clear Skies" initiative permits greater industrial air pollution.
Last week, the president employed doublespeak again. In the name of "improving" Head Start -- the federally funded preschool program that provides early educational, health and nutrition services to 1 million impoverished children -- he pressed Congress to pass legislation that would allow states to "opt in" and to match block grants to participate in the program.
"Opt in." Sounds generous and inclusive, doesn't it? But what it really means is shifting responsibility for Head Start to the states, most of which are crushed by budget deficits and don't have the money to fund the quality programs that prepare poor children to arrive at school ready to learn. The result? The quality of Head Start program would vary widely, with cuts decided by individual states.
Shifting funds to California, according to Amy Dominguez-Arms, vice president of Oakland's Children Now, "could undo a comprehensive preschool program with proven positive results for children. What we're worried about is that it would lower quality standards and that the state would use the funds for other purposes."
Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, sees Bush's legislative proposal as an attempt to dismantle Head Start and as "part of a bold plan to break the sacred covenant between people and their federal government. If it ain't broke, don't fix it," says Edelman. "More importantly, if it ain't broke, don't break it."
She's right. Head Start enjoys the highest customer satisfaction score of any federal agency. Even the Bush administration's own Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) concedes that Head Start provides our poorest children a quality early childhood education.
So why is the president willing to dismantle Head Start? "Management flexibility," he says. More doublespeak. The president's real agenda is to starve and shrink federal programs and get out of the business of providing services to the poor. The problem is, the poor can't afford to pay for the private services that might replace public ones.
Since it began in 1965 as part of Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty, Head Start has benefited 20 million at-risk kids and families. Studies have shown that kids who participate in Head Start commit fewer juvenile crimes, need less special education, are more likely to graduate from high school, and that every dollar invested during the first seven years of a child's life saves $2 to $4 of federal dollars later on.
"Leave no child behind," Bush promised during his campaign, stealing the decades-old slogan of the Children's Defense Fund. Well, right now, Head Start serves 3 out of 5 eligible children. Yet it would only cost $2 billion a year to give all eligible kids the chance to participate in Head Start.
What does it say about the values of our society that we are willing to spend $4 billion dollars a month waging war in Iraq and give huge tax breaks to millionaires, but don't have enough money to give American children the benefit of early education that prepares them for learning in school?
Doublespeak is dangerous: Bush's "opt in" proposal is designed to dismantle Head Start, hardly what the American people expect from a president who calls himself a compassionate conservative, devoted to improving children's education.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle