The White House is proposing a historic shift in the Head Start preschool program for poor youngsters that calls for the federal government to offer states broad new control over decision-making and replaces the program's traditional mission with an emphasis on literacy, officials said yesterday.
In the fiscal 2004 budget that will be unveiled Monday, President Bush will give governors the option of taking charge of key aspects of the program that have been managed by the federal government. These include setting standards for teacher qualifications and instruction of the 905,000 children in Head Start, as well as determining which programs can receive Head Start money.
In a briefing, the officials, who asked not to be identified, said the changes will allow states to increase all-day Head Start classes, better coordinate state preschool programs with Head Start and better mesh preschool instruction with K-12 curriculum, ensuring that students are better prepared to enter elementary school. The key to the changeover would be encouraging Head Start programs that focus on literacy, they said.
The officials portrayed the new proposal as a natural sequel to Bush's 2001 education initiative, the "No Child Left Behind" measure that sets up systems for testing and accountability in U.S. public schools. The changes must be approved by Congress.
"If we are going to hold governors accountable for all children reading on grade level by third grade, there needs to be more state involvement with these kids who are most at risk," an official said.
Head Start has long been seen as the nation's leading preschool program for the poor. It is designed to help children and their families prepare for school academically, but also sends them to the dentist, doctor or mental health professional, or teaches them how to hold a fork or use a toilet.
Critics said the changes proposed for the 38-year-old program would be costly and could undermine the provision of those health and social services. They also said that in these tight economic times, states may be tempted to use the money for other things.
"Head Start is not just an early education program; it is a family support program," said Samuel J. Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, a nonprofit organization that trains child development professionals. "And we will lose the family support.
"Early education alone does not account for all the gains the children have to make in order to be successful in school," he added.
Some state government officials said they could not comment on the proposed changes to Head Start because they had not been informed of them by the White House.
Kerry Mazzoni, California's secretary for education, said that the idea sounded "interesting," adding that she supported coordinating state pre-kindergarten programs with Head Start.
"Without looking at the details, alignment and coordination within the states of those programs is a positive thing," she said.
But she also said that it was important that new regulations be "not onerous" and that the federal government allows states the flexibility to align the programs the way they see fit. She also said it is important that Head Start be adequately funded. Asked if states would be tempted to use the money to cover shortfalls in other areas, she said preschool education is becoming a growing priority among states.
The administration officials did not say how much money would be budgeted for Head Start for the next fiscal year. The federal government spends more than $6 billion on about 1,400 programs around the country. Of those, about 400 provide full-day services.
In recent years, questions have arisen about whether Head Start programs hire enough qualified teachers and whether the benefits for children last throughout their school years.
Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said the notion of fadeout of Head Start benefits is a myth, and that studies that measure school progress find that Head Start has a lasting impact on whether children will repeat grades and graduate from high school. But he and others acknowledge that Head Start needs to focus on hiring better-qualified teachers.
Bush's budget will propose that the program be moved to the Department of Education from the Department of Health and Human Services, which has overseen it since Head Start began in 1965.
The administration officials said governors would be given the option of controlling their own Head Start programs or continuing to allow the federal government to manage them. The federal government would require state officials to serve all children eligible for Head Start, they said, but would let them decide how to do that. Parents would have input in the decision.
"The focus is on the kid, not the organization," an official said.
They added that enrollment in some Head Start programs is chronically lacking, and that states might be better able to tailor programs and help fill those underused spots.
Sarah Green, president of the National Head Start Association, a nonprofit organization that supports Head Start, called Bush's proposal a potential "disaster." She said states facing huge deficits are already cutting pre-kindergarten programs.
"They will not serve the neediest of the needy," she said. "We think this is an unwise move, and we plead with them and the Congress to use good judgment and maintain Head Start intact."
Barnett said, "It is important and valuable that the administration emphasizes the educational role of Head Start," but he said he does not see any benefit in moving to the Education Department without giving the programs more resources.
"The constraint on providing a good education was not that the folks at [HHS] didn't know how to do that," he said. "It was that they didn't have enough money to hire teachers with higher degrees."