GOP-backed Head Start Bill Draws Fire

By Ori Nir

Published September 30, 2005, issue of September 30, 2005.

WASHINGTON — A White House-backed measure to allow federally funded early-child-care providers to discriminate on religious grounds is drawing fire from several Jewish organizations, but also receiving support from two Orthodox groups.

The measure, supported by the Bush administration and approved last week by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, involves Head Start, a federal program that prohibits any sectarian influences. Under the measure, an amendment to the House School Readiness Act, faith-based Head Start providers would be allowed to factor in religion when they hire staff to deliver child-care services. A similar bill is pending in the Senate. No vote has been scheduled.

The practical effect of the amendment is that a church running a Head Start day-care center could opt to hire only Christians or a synagogue in the same position, only Jews. The federal government transfers about $6.7 billion annually to 19,000 Head Start providers in 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia. Each year, prekindergarten centers affiliated with the program employ more than 51,000 teachers and teach almost a million students.

Liberal groups that advocate a high church-state wall strongly oppose the version of the Head Start reauthorization bill passed in the House. They argue that it allows discrimination by repealing civil-rights protections.

The GOP version of the bill is opposed by the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers, the Children’s Defense Fund, the National PTA and People for the American Way –– among other national groups –– as well as the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women. On the other side, conservative groups, including the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, contend that the bill corrects a wrong by allowing faith-based preschools to maintain their religious autonomy even if they receive federal grants.

Confrontation over the bill flared last week, days before the vote on the House floor, when Democrats discovered that the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, had attached the controversial amendment to the bill. The official sponsor of the amendment was Rep. Charles Boustany, a Louisiana Republican who represents a district that was hit badly by Hurricane Katrina.

Before the controversial amendment was introduced, the School Readiness Act represented a rare product of bipartisanship. Democratic and Republican staffers worked carefully to reform Head Start by reinforcing anti-corruption safeguards and increasing competition, while maintaining current funding. The bill was approved unanimously, 48-0, by Boehner’s committee in May.

Immediately after the vote, however, Boehner indicated his intention to introduce the controversial amendment allowing faith-based providers to take religion into account when hiring. The amendment was introduced last week, and opponents had only three days to mobilize a campaign before the September 22 vote. In the end, 23 House Democrats supported the overall bill, which passed by a margin of 231-184. The amendment, one of 10 added to the bill, passed by a smaller margin — 220-196 — with only 10 Democratic votes.

Opponents of the bill say they are working to get the amendment removed from the Senate version of the Head Start reauthorization bill. The ADL and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism say that fighting the amendment will be a high lobbying priority in coming weeks.



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