President urges improvements in preschool education programs

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

LANDOVER, Md. -- President Bush called for revising the 38-year-old Head Start program to emphasize literacy skills and give states flexibility to mesh the instruction with their own preschool learning plans.

"We want Head Start to set higher standards for the million children it serves," Bush said Monday. "No one wants Head Start to change; we just want additional focus."

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, and blending them with existing state-financed preschool programs.

Bush said such a change would allow governors to become accountable for the management of the programs and allow them more flexibility. He spoke at Highland Park Elementary School in suburban Washington before leaving Monday evening on a five-country trip to Africa.

Critics say the administration's plan would leave states unaccountable to the federal performance standards for Head Start. Opponents fear a declining federal role will lower the standards, and that the program will lose its comprehensive mission of health, nutrition and parental involvement.

"The president's plan would bring about the demise of one of the best federally supported early childhood programs, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "It would bring about the end of high-quality federal standards and comprehensive services that have helped low-income children become better prepared to start school."

Opponents also worry that states will cut state preschool funding.

"States could cut off services to three-year-olds, shorten hours, increase class size, reduce education quality, eliminate health screening and wipe out health and nutrition education, and still draw their block grants," said Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C.

The Head Start program provides preschool education for a million youngsters, 3 and 4 years old, from low-income families.

The House will vote on the GOP-sponsored legislation within a few weeks. The plan would add language, reading and math skills as goals of Head Start. It would require that teachers have at least an associate's degree in early childhood education or a related field within three years, and that half the Head Start teachers nationwide have a bachelor's degree by 2008.

Some states could apply to combine their existing preschool programs with their federal Head Start money if their program's standards are similar to federal standards and if they agree to maintain state spending on preschool.

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