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|Supporting proposals that are drawing some controversy, Bush and House Republicans want to give a handful of states the option of taking over Head Start programs now directed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The idea would be for the states to blend such programs with existing state-financed preschool programs.
Critics fear a declining federal role will result in a lowering of standards and they say the program would lose its comprehensive mission of health, nutrition and parental involvement. Opponents also worry that states would use the federal dollars to cut state preschool funding.
|President Bush called today for a major overhaul of Head Start, the popular Lyndon Johnson-era preschool program for poor children, that would add an academic focus to its traditional emphasis on health and nutrition and give some states the right to control its financing.
Head Start programs, the president said, are "working O.K.," but "we want better than O.K. in America. We want excellence."
|The White House position is that the bill, and Mr. Bush's plans for the program, would improve Head Start in two ways: by merging it with often-overlapping state programs and then imposing new academic standards on the combined program, which would still be called Head Start. Mr. Bush's advisers argue that Head Start, which serves the poorest of the nation's 3- and 4-year-olds and focuses on meals and medical care, has not kept up with new research showing how soon young children can learn.
The bill would require Head Start employees to teach early reading, writing and math skills, much like many state-financed and private preschool programs. "We want Head Start to set higher ambitions for the million children it serves," Mr. Bush said.
The president also promised that there would be safeguards to ensure that Head Start money sent directly to a state would, in fact, be used for Head Start. "What we really don't want to do is say we're going to focus on Head Start, the Head Start money goes for, you know, the prison complex," Mr. Bush said.
|Under the House bill, half of all Head Start teachers nationwide would have to earn bachelor's degrees by 2008. The bill also emphasizes specific teaching methods designed to foster reading, language and pre-mathematics skills.
Several Democrats said that they back such initiatives but that it is unrealistic to impose such requirements unless the federal government provides enough money to fund such upgrades. Head Start teachers generally earn half of what an average kindergarten teacher makes.
Chief Deputy Whip Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), who worked to round up votes yesterday afternoon, described the legislation as an example of how Bush is challenging states to exceed expectations in public education. "This is a reform-minded president who wants to translate his 'Leave No Child Behind' theory to Head Start education," Cantor said.
But even some Republicans questioned why the president and House leaders want to change a program that many local communities cherish. "The bottom line is I don't know why we're doing this," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who opposed the bill. "I feel like we're trying to fix something that's not broken."