MUCH OF the national debate on improving schools is focused on the No Child Left Behind Act. Absent from the limelight is an equally significant federal program with a proven track record of results. Head Start, America's early childhood development program, not only should be reauthorized but also strengthened and expanded.
Legislation to do that won unanimous and bipartisan approval last week from the Senate education committee. The bill would open the program to more low-income children by expanding eligibility and increasing funding. It also seeks to bring about important educational improvements by putting a renewed focus on academics and encouraging more and better training of Head Start teachers. In doing so, the bill strikes a good compromise between two warring camps. On one side are those who would gut the program of all its social aspects to concentrate on teaching reading and math. On the other side are those who think a focus solely on academics robs the program of its heart and children of their childhood.
It is particularly important, as the bill aims to achieve, that there be better cooperation and coordination between Head Start and state programs for the disadvantaged.
Key to the effort to build up Head Start and expand its reach is getting more money. To borrow a word from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), it is "shameful" that many children who could benefit from this program can't do so because of a lack of funding. The Bush administration has been particularly ungenerous in its support of the program, keeping funding flat and even reducing the budget by 1 percent to the current $6.8 billion. We have advocated an increase of $2 billion annually. So it is disappointing that the Senate bill calls for only $7.9 billion in 2010. Even that small increase translates into 56,000 more children getting a better chance for success in school.
The bill will come before the full Senate for a vote this year, and it is said to have wide support in the House. If it passes, there will be a fight over funding when appropriations are made. Congress must not be shortsighted when investing in opportunity.