Head Cases

Throughout American history, the Senate -- where small and conservative states have disproportionate weight and where rules allow one senator to block key legislation -- has far more often been a force for reaction than for progress. But these are unusual times, and with an ideologically rigid administration and scores of zealots in the House, it's often fallen to the Senate to bring sanity to the legislative process. The latest case in point is the Head Start debate, which shows just how extreme the White House and the House of Representatives really are -- and exposes the increasingly glaring fissures within the GOP over the administration's extremism.

The debate over Head Start reauthorization is usually the legislative equivalent of a wedding rehearsal dinner. Legislators from both sides of the aisle rise to extol the early-childhood program's virtues and speed it on its way to a lopsided vote of approval. Of all the components of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, Head Start has proven the most universally accepted. Even Ronald Reagan increased Head Start's funding while making deep cuts in other children's services. George Bush Senior gave the program the biggest funding increase in its history, only to be outdone a few years later by Bill Clinton.

But if there's one thing that defines our current President Bush, it's an impressive ignorance of history. Head Start is the latest federal program to find itself at the receiving end of Bush's "if it ain't broke, break it" policy. A House bill modeled on the Bush administration's Head Start proposal threatens some of the core provisions of the program, handing control over to cash-starved states without mandating that they maintain the program's high standards. During the rancorous House debate, critics like Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, accused the administration of trying to "annihilate an entire program."

Things have gone differently in the Senate. Liberal stalwarts like Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) have blasted the bill, but key Republican senators have also sought to distance themselves from it, meaning that whatever emerges from the Senate later this month is likely to look much more Head Start-friendly than the House bill. Given the Bush administration's fierce response to dissent, one might wonder why senior Republican senators (and some moderate Republicans in the House) aren't falling into line -- until one looks at what they'd have to sign on to, that is.

Head Start began in 1965 as an eight-week summer program, designed by a panel of child-development experts to help meet the needs of the nation's disadvantaged preschool children. Southern governors balked at the prospect of a program that would give so much of its benefits to poor blacks, so President Johnson bypassed the states, sending the funding directly to the local level, a distinctive arrangement that remains to this day. Head Start children are taught reading, language and math skills, plus get their immunization shots, have their teeth checked, are screened for disabilities and are regularly fed. The comprehensive care has also included parents of Head Start children, who are encouraged to participate in the program either as volunteers or members of Parent Committees or Policy Councils. Nearly a third of Head Start employees are former or current Head Start parents.

Head Start kids enter kindergarten far better prepared than they would have been otherwise. A recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services shows Head Start giving its graduates a decided edge in vocabulary and writing skills over other disadvantaged children. In 1999, Head Start finished at the top of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (an independent measure of consumer attitudes toward everything from government agencies to Fortune 500 companies), beating out not only every other federal agency but also private companies like Mercedes-Benz and BMW. And in a study whose preliminary results were released earlier this year, John Meier, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, tracked more than 600 Head Start graduates from the San Bernardino area. His findings showed improved scores in reading, language and math. Adding up other factors like the increased earnings, decreased welfare dependence and reduced grade repetition of Head Start graduates, he also calculated that San Bernardino County saved $8.74 for every dollar spent on the program.

Bush, however, has chosen to ignore this record and focus instead on the program's alleged shortcoming: that Head Start graduates are not as well prepared for kindergarten as their better-off peers. So the administration proposed turning the program over to the states, a move that most certainly would have weakened it. While that proposal didn't make it into the House's version (thanks to stiff resistance from the program's grass-roots supporters), the bill does provide for a watered-down version in the form of an eight-state pilot program. It also carries another Bush stamp: In a feature familiar to those who have followed the etiolating of Bush's No Child Left Behind education act, the Head Start bill creates a new mandate -- that half of Head Start teachers must have bachelor's degrees by 2008 -- without providing any new money for it. The funding increase the bill does mandate is barely enough to keep pace with inflation, and nowhere near enough to attract college graduates who could make nearly twice as much working in a public school than at Head Start.

The bill also carries that other Bush hallmark: flexibility. In the House version's pilot program, the eight participating states would be able to use Head Start money to supplant federal funding they get for other child-care programs. In effect the states would be cutting their overall child-care spending to free up money to, say, plug one of their yawning budget gaps. Most strikingly, the bill does not require states that opt for the pilot program to keep Head Start's strict standards on everything from staff qualifications and child-staff ratios to children's nutrition, health and safety. And, as Sarah M. Greene, president and CEO of the National Head Start Association, points out, "Most states that have any form of pre-kindergarten have very weak standards in comparison to Head Start's." Defenders note that the bill does suggest that states adhere to those standards. But it's hard to place much stock in that seeing as those same defenders dismiss many of the standards as "hundreds of pages of needless regulations," as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote in a June press release.

Given that few states have shown any interest in taking on a whole new social-services bureaucracy at this time -- indeed, Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.) justified his vote for the bill to his constituents by promising that his state wouldn't participate in the pilot program -- and that every one is now radically scaling back social services in the face of near-record budget shortfalls, the House bill could be nothing but unpopular. The more consensus-minded Republicans in the Senate realized that such a divisive proposition didn't have a prayer of passage. In response, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) proposed his own plan. It centered around giving bonus funding to 200 Head Start "Centers of Excellence" nationwide, gestured toward more state control but generally kept the program's administrative structure as is. When asked what Alexander thinks of the House bill, Alexia Poe, his press secretary, diplomatically demurred, "He likes his bill better. ... He hopes that his bill is a way to address more state involvement without giving the money directly to the states."

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), who as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has presided over the Senate bill markup, has been similarly coy about his position on the House bill. He hasn't criticized it, but he hasn't endorsed its key provisions, either. What he has done, over and over, in public and -- according to Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley -- privately, is state his desire for a truly bipartisan bill. And that's not what the House had to offer. In Manley's words, "Sen. Gregg has already conceded that the block grants are a nonstarter."

So the true Republican partisans in the House and White House will likely be disappointed by the Senate bill. The rest of us, however, may see a bit of hope, however, not only in the prospects for Head Start but in the weakening of the White House's iron grip.