NO FEDERAL PROGRAM can ever expect to be treated as sacred, and Head Start is no exception. In existence for nearly 40 years, Head Start, which provides child development services and preschool education for low-income families, has a venerable track record and many admirers who support its "take care of the whole child" philosophy. It also has critics, some of whom note that gains made by Head Start children seem to fade over time, some of whom worry about poorly paid and not necessarily well-trained Head Start teachers. As a result, there is a movement afoot to change Head Start, to reeemphasize the academic component of the preschool program.

That's the national story. Take it down a couple of levels to Montgomery County, and the story acquires new twists. Montgomery school officials began looking again at their own Head Start program both because of changing demographics -- particularly the growing number of non-English-speaking children -- and as a result of their expanded, more academic and successful kindergarten program. Perhaps because Montgomery County already has trained teachers in Head Start classrooms (paid the same as public school teachers) as well as an academic preschool curriculum, testing quickly showed that the county's 1,700 Head Start graduates were doing markedly better in the new kindergarten program than low-income children who had not been to preschool. As a result, county officials began talking about expanding the program to the additional 1,000 children they believe could most benefit.

But in a time of budget constraints, a straight expansion isn't possible. Instead, officials have come up with Fast Start, a program that provides the academics of Head Start but depends on other county agencies to provide some other aspects of the federal program, such as family visits and health services, and -- to put it bluntly -- discards others because they are too expensive. As of 2004, children in federal Head Start programs must wear safety belts when riding school buses. Montgomery County figures the cost of implementing this requirement alone would destroy its whole program. Fast Start classrooms will also have 20 children instead of the federally mandated 17 for Head Start. Although some 800 children would remain in the traditional, federally funded Head Start program in Montgomery, officials want Fast Start to accommodate the rest -- plus some 160 others next year, and maybe more in the future.

Here's the lesson: At the local level, the battle over the future of Head Start is not merely an esoteric intellectual tussle between the child development crowd, which wants poor children to learn life skills, and the early education crowd, which wants them to learn the alphabet. It is also a battle being fought in the context of limited budgets, a burgeoning immigrant population, and heavy federal regulations and administrative requirements. Within this context, Fast Start represents a compromise, and a set of choices: to make academics the priority, to include more children and to do both within existing budgets. It isn't an ideal solution, but it may well be a more realistic indicator of Head Start's future than the visions conjured up in the national debates.