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A Bush Administration Budget War on Poor Children? Target: Head Start

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By Marian Wright Edelman

Since 1965, Head Start has helped over 20 million children build the confidence and skills they need to succeed in school and to become the leaders, taxpayers, and productive citizens of the future.

Head Start takes a comprehensive approach to supporting children and families, offering literacy, health care, social services, and nutrition services, while emphasizing parent involvement and support and building upon the strengths of local communities. This approach has represented a formula for success for nearly 40 years. Head Start works.

But while the Bush administration has hailed Head Start as the "premier early education program," the administration's budget proposes to destroy Head Start as we know it. It will turn Head Start over to states and take it away from communities, shift it to the Department of Education, and eliminate the national performance standards and assurance of comprehensive services that have made it a successful program.

At a time when only three in five eligible children get Head Start and only three percent get Early Head Start, the Bush administration's budget will enable only a tiny fraction of the additional children who need Head Start to get it. And its radical changes would undermine the futures of the nearly one million children who currently participate in Head Start.

Head Start has demonstrated its success in preparing children for school and for life. A recent study says Head Start narrows the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers in vocabulary and writing skills during the program year.

Once in kindergarten, Head Start graduates demonstrate that they are ready to learn, making substantial progress in word knowledge, letter recognition, math skills, and writing skills relative to national averages. Other studies have shown that Head Start children are less likely to be placed in special education or held back a grade.

But most states aren't prepared to continue and fund Head Start's successful approach. They have invested over three times less in preschool and early education than the federal government has invested in Head Start. They are grappling with huge budget deficits and are already cutting their existing state prekindergarten programs for example, New York Governor George Pataki is proposing eliminating theirs.

Only 12 states are on track to comply with even half of the federal requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (the Bush administration's single-issue, underfunded education law, not to be confused with the comprehensive Dodd-Miller Act to Leave No Child Behind which CDF supports). We shouldn't add yet another responsibility without protections for Head Start children.

Head Start was founded on the principle that children cannot learn when they are hungry, or sick, or too worried about their home situation to concentrate in school. The program emphasizes not only children's cognitive development, but also their social, emotional, and physical development.

Research demonstrates that all of these areas of development are intertwined. But most state prekindergarten initiatives don't provide the comprehensive services that are the hallmark of Head Start. With no new resources and no requirements to focus on children's comprehensive needs, states will surely water down the services currently available to young children in Head Start.

Head Start stresses parent involvement, which is so crucial to children's success in school. Most state initiatives don't. Head Start has extensive quality standards and regular monitoring to ensure that these standards are met. States haven't demonstrated a commitment to strong standards in their programs for young children. Some don't even require child care teachers to have any training in early education.

And Head Start serves three- and four-year-olds, as well as some infants and toddlers through Early Head Start. This allows children to remain in the program for multiple years, which gives them stability and the ability to develop close relationships with teachers and peers. Eighteen state prekindergarten initiatives limit eligibility to four-year-olds.

The Bush administration is waging a budget war against poor children, and Head Start is only one of its targets. The administration is also seeking to block grant Medicaid and merge its funds with those from the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). This will jeopardize health care for millions of children at a time when 9 million children lack health coverage.

The Bush administration's words say it wants to Leave No Child Behind®, but its deeds leave millions of children and no millionaire behind. Just the proposed new stock dividend tax cut portion alone would provide every unserved child a Head Start and every uninsured child health insurance.

The Children's Defense Fund is asking everyone in America who is concerned about children to call their U.S. Senators and Representatives. We MUST send a powerful and consistent message to those in power. Children need our voice.

Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind® and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

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