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Don't Break Head Start: It Works

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As members of Congress left Washington for their summer recess, they left behind a lot of unfinished business that children and families urgently needed them to address. They didn't give the 12 million children in 6.5 million hardworking tax-paying military and civilian families the tax refunds given to wealthier families.

Before leaving town, the House of Representatives voted by only one vote to endanger one crucial program: Head Start. Bush administration and House congressional leaders are seeking to block grant and end Head Start as we know it. But Head Start is not broken. And they should not break it. It is a successful program that should be expanded and strengthened.

It does not need a new layer of state bureaucracy sandwiched between the federal government and the communities who now deliver Head Start services. Head Start's national performance standards and comprehensive services are crucial to the success of the program and need to continue. No state has a better early childhood track record than Head Start.

The Senate must reject House and Bush administration attempts to destroy Head Start as we know it and jeopardize this vital program for millions of children.

Fortunately there is another and better choice. Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) have introduced a bill to protect and improve Head Start. You need to urge your members of Congress to support this Dodd-Kennedy version of a Head Start bill.

Members of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, one of the nation's largest organizations of Black churches with 1,800 churches and two and a half million members, sent a petition to our nation's leaders urging them to support this alternate bill. The letter begins: "Dear President Bush and Members of Congress: The Head Start program is not broken. Please do not break it." Again, this is exactly right.

Head Start has a proven track record over the past 38 years of having helped 20 million of the poorest children with the greatest need make substantial progress in getting ready for and doing better in school. This is largely the result of its national performance standards and comprehensive services, which recognize that the needs of the whole child must be addressed, because health, nutrition, social services and parent involvement all contribute to a child's school readiness and future success. Yet both the current national standards and comprehensive services are threatened by House proposals that are backed by the Bush administration.

There also has been talk of changes to the Head Start program that I agree with. I support strengthening the literacy component of Head Start within its current comprehensive services framework. I also support requiring bachelors' degrees for all Head Start teachers within a designated timeframe and investing the resources needed to achieve this goal. More training of Head Start personnel and greater coordination with state preschool and kindergarten programs are important too.

But all of these steps can be taken without block granting Head Start and allowing 50 different states to dismantle 38 years of national success.

All efforts to block grant Head Start, put a cap on its funding, or weaken its quality should be rejected. Instead, there should be increased investment in Head Start and Early Head Start so these programs can serve all eligible children. There should also be greater and new investment by states and the federal government to make available high quality early education-pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and after-school programs-to all children who need them.

We are deeply concerned about state cutbacks in child care and early education programs and oppose efforts that might shift or supplant Head Start monies for other federal or state dollars.

Children need additional resources and better quality child care, Head Start, early education and after-school programs.

Children are hurt by budget shell games that take already inadequate resources from programs children need and give them to other vital programs for children. Head Start and universal pre-kindergarten programs are complementary approaches. We support both, but the latter requires significant new resources.

Instead of being redesigned with new guidelines fixing what isn't broken, Head Start should be reauthorized the way Senator Dodd and Senator Kennedy are proposing-with enough resources to reach all eligible children, improve teacher quality and training, and maintain national performance standards. Call, e-mail, or write your members of Congress and tell them that protecting Head Start is a defining litmus test for you of their concern for children.

The Progressive National Baptist Convention members have set an important example that we all need to follow by sending our own version of the same message to the leaders who represent us before time runs out. A Senate vote is expected in September. Stand up for Head Start right now. (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 and its Action Council 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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