Last week the Senate followed the House’s lead by passing legislation to reauthorize the Head Start program. The bill, S 556, passed with bipartisan support by voice vote. The Head Start program was first authorized in 1965 to serve economically disadvantaged pre-school-aged children. Currently over 900,000 children are enrolled in Head Start programs around the country.
Like the House, the Senate bill rejects the President’s proposal to dismantle the program through state-controlled block grants. It disallows hiring of Head Start staff based on an individual’s religion, terminates the controversial National Reporting System testing for toddlers, and increases set-asides for Early Head Start and Migrant and Indian Head Start programs. Both bills authorize funding for Head Start of $7.35 billion in FY 2008, up from $6.9 billion in FY 2007, but still insufficient to restore cuts made since 2002.
There are some differences in the two bills. Both increase income eligibility from 100 to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, but the House bill limits to 20 percent the children in any one program above 100 percent of poverty while the Senate bill calls for prioritizing slots for children at or below 100 percent of poverty. The House bill requires that by 2013, 50 percent of Head Start teachers nationwide have a baccalaureate degree, without sanctioning programs that have difficulty meeting the benchmark. The Senate bill requires that each state achieve the 50 percent threshold.
One key difference in the bills relates to the role of the Policy Councils. Comprised of at least 51 percent Head Start parents, under current law Policy Councils share decision-making, except for the hiring and firing of the program director, with the governing body that has legal and fiscal responsibility for running the programs. The House bill maintains the current structure. The Senate bill includes provisions that would diminish the role of the Policy Council from decision-maker to that of advisor. On June 19, the National Head Start Association, which represents 2,700 Head Start programs, wrote to committee Chairman Kennedy (D-MA) and Ranking Member Enzi (R-WY) saying NHSA could not support the Senate bill because of the diminished role of parents who play a critical and central role in the success of Head Start programs.
The Head Start program was last reauthorized in 1998 and has been slated for reauthorization since 2003. The main stumbling block has been disagreement over whether Head Start staff could be hired based on religion. With the House and Senate bills in agreement now on this point, most working on the legislation believe that remaining differences can be ironed out and a bill passed this fall.