By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007
With two overwhelming votes, Congress approved a bill yesterday that would boost teacher qualifications in federally funded Head Start preschools, expand access to the program for children from low-income families and scrap a controversial system for testing 4-year-olds.
The first reauthorization of Head Start since 1998 passed 95 to 0 in the Senate and 381 to 36 in the House and now goes to President Bush, who is expected to sign the measure.
The 42-year-old program serves about 909,000 disadvantaged children, aiming to help prepare them for school academically, emotionally and socially.
The legislation sets a goal that by 2013 all Head Start teachers will have at least an associate's degree and half will have a bachelor's degree. It expands eligibility to families just above the federal poverty level, authorizes a funding increase and directs money to programs for younger children and migrant and Native American students.
"For low-income children, having some type of early-childhood development is critically important to their success," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said. "The reforms that are included in this bill I think are critically important so that Head Start can really be all that many of us want it to be. There are some tremendous Head Start programs around the country . . . but there are also some programs that don't fulfill the promise that we're making to parents and their children."
The bill eliminates a testing program for 4-year-olds that is supported by the Bush administration. Critics said the National Reporting System, a set of mini-tests intended to measure verbal and math skills, didn't provide a valid assessment of progress for students so young. The bill omitted an administration-backed proposal to allow faith-based groups to consider religion in hiring for Head Start.
The federal push to expand early-childhood education is part of a national movement to make preschool available to more children, particularly those from low-income homes. Several governors, including Timothy M. Kaine (D) of Virginia, are seeking to add government-funded preschool slots for needy children.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) noted that the legislation authorizes $7.3 billion in funding for fiscal 2008, up from $6.9 billion, and dedicates more money for teacher training. "Head Start teachers and staff are the heart and future of the program," Kennedy said in a statement. "They help children learn to identify letters and arrange the pieces of a puzzle. They teach them to brush their teeth, wash their hands, make friends and follow rules."
Kathy Patterson, federal policy director for Pre-K Now, a D.C.-based advocacy group, applauded the bill. "We're going to serve more kids, and one of the things we're particularly excited about is the emphasis on quality," she said. "The challenge will be in the appropriations process to make sure there's adequate funding."