Head Start, the nation's premier early education program, is under dangerous attack by the Bush administration.
Since 1965, Head Start has given more than 20 million children a chance to get ready for, and succeed in, school by providing high quality, comprehensive services to the nation's poorest children and families.
It provides federal grants directly to community organizations without the layer of state bureaucracy, allowing for local flexibility and strong oversight of its federal quality standards nationwide. The Bush administration bill would turn Head Start over to states and dilute the comprehensive services, performance standards and parent involvement requirements that meet the full range of developmental needs key to Head Start's success.
Why is the Bush administration seeking to dismantle Head Start? They say it is to encourage greater coordination of early education programs at the state level. The truth is that states are cutting children's preschool and education programs in a struggle to close their huge budget deficits. If the Bush plan to dismantle Head Start succeeds, Head Start dollars will be turned over to states awash in red ink, without protections for children and without any new resources. Head Start as we know it will disappear.
Why should a successful program with a proven track record for children be dismantled, divided into 50 state pieces, without a shred of evidence that states have or will do a better job serving our children?
Head Start is one of the most researched and evaluated early childhood programs in America. Studies of Head Start conclude it works.
The latest study conducted by the federal Department of Health and Human Services gives yet another confirmation that the program is giving America's poorest children what it promises -- a start in preparing them for school. Yet lawmakers don't have to believe the government's own research to know Head Start is working; they could just ask some of the parents and graduates who've participated in the program.
We've been doing just that - and hearing amazing success stories from families across the country: Tennessee mother Theresa Chapin told us about the extra help Head Start gave her autistic son, Joey.
Doctors who diagnosed Joey said he would never speak or be toilet-trained and would likely have severe lifelong disabilities. His Head Start teachers went the extra mile. They took the time to assess his special needs and work with him to develop these and other skills, while catching up with the children around him. "After Head Start, Joey, now 7, is able to go to kindergarten with typically developing children. ... Working together with our family, Head Start helped give Joey his independence. He will enter first grade next year, and he's ready to go!"
A Kansas graduate remembers what it was like to be in Head Start as a 4-year-old: "I have vivid memories of riding the school bus, riding bikes on the playground, making many friends and going on field trips. At home, my mom didn't have a car, so we didn't ever have the opportunity to go places around town.
That meant a lot to my mom and me to be able to have the opportunity to see the community. ... The apartment complex we lived in didn't have a playground - and without a car, we couldn't go to a city park.
So the fact that Head Start had a playground, with swings, a slide, a sandbox and room to ride bikes was very important. ... I know that I was far better prepared to enter kindergarten than most of my classmates. I was especially proud that I could count from one to 100 before going to kindergarten. Most of my friends couldn't do that.
Now, at 19 years old, I have graduated from high school and am hoping to begin at the University of Kansas studying pre-law. I know that being a part of the Head Start program helped me to be the responsible and self-sufficient individual that I am."
Oregon parent Asuncion Garay Diaz praises not only Head Start's programs for children, but also the parent training, which is in danger of disappearing under the Bush and House Republican proposal: "I have become a different person, thanks to the Migrant Head Start training, which has motivated me to keep improving myself ... to keep going to English classes, to get my GED... to improve my relationship with my partner, to learn to be a better parent to my children and, eventually, to my grandchildren.
I learned my whole family should feel proud of our culture, of our roots, and always be united so that we can make a difference, and how that can be achieved by teaching [the children] that we have to keep improving ourselves and educating ourselves."
Could Head Start be improved? Of course. Does it need to be expanded, rather than dismantled or its funding frozen, as the Bush budget proposes? Of course. Right now, only three of five Head Start-eligible children and only 3 percent of children under 3 eligible for Early Head Start receive it.
Should the comprehensive services including parent involvement and national performance standards be maintained? Of course. Can Head Start's literacy component and its teacher qualifications be improved? Of course - and the resources to do so must be provided.
Will dismantling Head Start as we know it and parceling it out to 50 state bureaucracies - who are cutting their own preschool and child care programs and struggling to close huge deficits - improve Head Start? Of course not - that would undermine and destroy Head Start. Is there any evidence based on past or present data that states programs do a better job for our country's poorest children? No.
The lives of millions of children depend on Head Start. Continuing to improve its quality and its ability to provide comprehensive services for children and families is essential. Head Start can best be improved under its current structure, not by turning it over to the states and asking them to produce more results with fewer services, less monitoring and no new money. Common sense -- and real-life Head Start families -- tell us that. Why aren't policy-makers listening?
For the latest information on the fight to save Head Start and to learn how you can help, visit www.childrensdefense.org.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund. The mission of the Children's Defense Fund 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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