Questions: Head start reauthorization challenged

Joiner, Lottie L

The federal Head Start program was created in 1965 to help prepare low-income children for kindergarten. The program provides youth with comprehensive health, nutrition and educational services, including meals, dental screenings and counseling. Today, more than 900,000 children, only 60 percent of those who are eligible, participate in the $6.7 billion federal program. The Bush Administration has proposed legislation to allow states to manage the program, which is currently run by local entities. Head Start advocates oppose the proposal, called the School Readiness Act, saying it would dismantle a system that has aided millions of kids in poverty.

Ron Herndon, director of Albina Head Start, a comprehensive early childhood program in Portland, Ore., and president of the National Head Start Association, a private, nonprofit advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Va., that provides support and training to Head Start families, discusses the Bush Administration’s plan to change Head Start.

Your organization is protesting the Bush Administration’s plan for reauthorizing Head Start. Why?

We think that the Bush Administration has come up with some recommendations that, if enacted, would be harmful to Head Start. [Their recommendations] are to give the [federal Head Start] money to states and states will do a better job of running Head Start. The research shows plainly that Head Start programs are far superior than state-run preschools. It’s a very dangerous philosophy that has nothing to do with [improving] services for children and families.

How is the program currently administered?

[The U.S. Department of] Health and Human Services contracts with communitybased organizations to administer Head Start. Now that could either be the city, county, YWCA, YMCA or a community-action program. It depends on what local communities determine are the best institutions that would give quality services to children and families. The unique part of Head Start is parental involvement. They’re involved in all hiring, budget approval. They’re trained on how to be involved in personnel decisions. Parents play an integral role in Head Start and one that you rarely see in other institutions.

Why is Head Start needed?

You have a lot of low-income families that don’t get the assistance they need to enable them to prepare their children for school successfully. Unfortunately, it is probably needed more today than it was [38 years ago].

Why should we be concerned about the administration’s plan?

Once you send it to the states, states do not have to have parental involvement, and they don’t have to meet national Head Start performance standards. Most states are suffering from huge deficits right now. Many have cut back state support for preschools and state-support for Head Start. So why would you take federal money and send it to states that are cash-strapped and struggling?

What’s wrong with Head Start? And how can it be improved?

It doesn’t serve all eligible children. Congress made a commitment in 1990 that by 1994, it would appropriate funds to enable Head Start to serve all eligible children. It hasn’t done it. To improve the program, we need to take advantage of the experiences of those in the Head Start community – get our best and brightest together and let them say what works and come up with a detailed road map on how to replicate it for Head Start programs around the country.

– interview by Lottie L. Joiner

Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated Sep/Oct 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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