issue guide: Head Start

The Skinny

see also background & facts, pro & con, links

What's Up

Head Start, the federal act that funds education, health and social services for low-income pre-schoolers, was up for a revote and possible revamp in '04. In most re-authorization cycles this famously bi-partisan bill sails through Congress, but it hit rough waters when initial proposed changes to strengthen testing and faith-based groups got Democrats and early childhood advocates up in arms.

The debate eventually simmered down, allowing the House and Senate to pass, HR 1429, in November '07.

Rather than follow the president's recommendation to strengthen testing (discussed below), Congress voted to remove national testing requirements. They also nixed a provision that would have allowed faith-based Head Start programs to hire based on religious belief.

What the Debate's About

The president says Head Start is needed, but he wants the act to do more to insure its programs build school-readiness skills in reading, writing and math. That spells more testing and accountability measures - a la No Child Left Behind. In 2004, the Administration also wanted to give some states more flexibility to spend their Head Start money and better coordinate the goals of pre-school programs with K-12 schools. Much of that flexibility was cut out of the 2005 version of the bill.

Opponents say that while more accountability is fine, it's not needed; Head Start has already shown that its programs are high quality.

Other points of contention are whether faith-based institutions can hire staff based on religious belief, how much Head Start funding should be raised, and whether Head Start should be continued at all (from those who state that Head Start has no long-term benefits). (Note: in the current House bill, faith-based organizations that provide Head Start services are not allowed to hire based on religion.)

Where Things Stand Now

A final bill was sent to the president in November, 2007.

Updated November 18, 2007

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