CHN: Head Start Reauthorization Passes House Committee

Legislation Significantly Expands Role of States On Wednesday, June 18, the House Education and Workforce Committee passed HR 2210, “The School Readiness Act of 2003” to reauthorize the Head Start program. The bill passed on a straight party-line vote (27 – 20) after heated partisan debate over the broad changes to the historically successful Head Start program.

The School Readiness Act was introduced by Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Mike Castle (R-DE) on May 22 and approved by the Subcommittee on a party-line vote of 11 – 9 on June 12. The legislation would drastically change Head Start by including a pilot program to allow eight states to combine funding for their own early childhood programs with federal Head Start funds. Head Start advocates claim that by transferring authority for the program from private local entities to states, the federal government will dismantle a very successful program and fail to guarantee the continued application of federal performance and quality standards. There are also concerns that the bill does not strictly require states to provide the comprehensive health, social, and nutritional services under the pilot program now provided by Head Start and that faith-based programs would be able to discriminate based on religion in hiring practices.

The original bill gave all states the authority to run their own programs, but after vehement criticism that the legislation would turn Head Start into a block grant with no federal standards, Castle amended his measure in subcommittee markup. The state discretion provision was then turned into a pilot program. Democrats and Head Start advocates and administrators still oppose the provision.

Of further concern to advocates is the bill’s lack of funding. HR 2210 would authorize an increase of approximately $203 million from FY 03, which would amount to barely a cost-of-living increase to cover existing program costs for next year. The bill also requires all new Head Start teachers to have an associate’s degree in early childhood education or a related field within three years and requires that 50 percent of the program’s teachers have a bachelor’s degree by 2008. According to a letter opposing HR 2210 sent to Congress by more than 40 child advocacy and other groups, “there is no funding to ensure that Head Start programs will be able to attract and retain qualified teachers.” Representative Danny Davis (D-IL), sponsored an amendment that would have authorized $685 million the next two fiscal years to pay stipends to Head Start teachers who earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. That amendment was defeated 22 – 26.

No legislation has been introduced in the Senate yet for the reauthorization of the program, but the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee is scheduled to hold hearings within the next few weeks to determine the next steps for the Senate bill. Any bill containing the pilot program proposal from the House bill or a similar plan will encounter stiff resistance from Senate Democrats.

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