WASHINGTON — Opposition to a Republican plan for reforming Head Start, America’s chief day-care program for poor children, is reuniting Jewish groups that have not worked together on domestic policy issues for some time.
Many Jewish liberals are opposing the initiative because they are concerned that the proposed changes to Head Start, including an experiment in funding the program through block grants to states, would harm what is widely regarded as one of America’s most successful social-service programs.
“Head Start is a proven program that would be in great jeopardy if sent to the states,” said Ellen Witman, co-director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women, which called on its supporters to urge their representatives to oppose the bill.
Some Jewish defense organizations are opposed to a provision hastily introduced to the bill last week that would allow religious groups that provide Head Start services to hire teachers based on their faith.
“This gives religious organizations carte blanche in relying on religious preference in who they hire with government funds. That’s inappropriate,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee.
Some observers are pointing to the opposition as evidence of the reemergence of a coalition that has been largely dormant since the outbreak of the intifada in 2000, when many Jewish civil-rights and defense agencies became reticent about challenging the administration on social issues because of the grave situation in the Middle East.
The House of Representatives education reform subcommittee last week marked up the School Readiness Act, a bill intended to reform the popular 38-year-old program, widely regarded as a success story. The bill is fashioned after President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act, the law that requires testing elementary school students annually in reading and math to encourage narrowing the achievement gaps between affluent and underprivileged children.
The Head Start reform bill requires more rigorous academic standards in order for program participants to narrow the “readiness gap” between graduates of such programs and more affluent children entering kindergarten. The bill’s sponsors, led by the subcommittee’s chairman, Michael Castle, a Delaware Republican, point to consistent data showing that Head Start graduates — some 900,000 graduate the program each year — perform far below the national average in vocabulary, early writing and early mathematics. Although these students perform better than low-income students who don’t participate in Head Start, they could perform even better, GOP legislators say.
“We all can agree on the need for Head Start and its outstanding successes, but we must also recognize that Head Start can produce even greater results for children,” Castle said.
Opponents argue that emphasizing academic achievements is likely to de-emphasize other, no less important, components of Head Start, including providing pre-kindergarten beneficiaries with dental care and nutritious food. Without increasing Head Start’s budget, it is impossible to do all that, said Helen Blank, a senior fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, and the new bill doesn’t offer to increase its funding. Blank, who for years handled the Head Start portfolio for the liberal Children’s Defense Fund, said: “We are concerned that [Head Start] will become too narrow a program. How can you presume to strengthen the program and require that teachers have a B.A., without any new money? There is simply no new money in this bill.”
In hearings held by the committee before the bill’s markup last week, experts and Head Start providers spoke out against the White House push to fund Head Start through the states. The decentralization of the program, like several other social-service programs, is one of the administration’s chief goals in seeking reform.
Currently, the federal government transfers the money — about $6.7 billion annually — directly to some 19,000 Head Start providers in 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia. Pre-kindergarten centers affiliated with the program employ more than 51,000 teachers and teach almost a million students annually.
Opponents contend that de-federalizing the program would jeopardize its efficiency and transparency. “If you give such a popular program to the states, it won’t grow as much as it would in the federal level. We know that states don’t have money, so they are going to have a hard time growing it,” Blank said.
Under pressure, GOP legislators on the subcommittee last week toughened conditions under which states would be eligible to run the program and limited the number of states that could do that — experimentally, at first — to eight. They softened other controversial provisions of the bill in order to “strike a fair balance on the issues of concern to everyone interested in Head Start,” said Castle, the subcommittee’s chairman.
But Castle and his colleagues also inserted a provision into the bill that would exempt faith-based providers from federal prohibitions on religious discrimination in hiring. The practical implication of that exemption would be that faith-based providers would be allowed to hire on the basis of religion.
“What we’re seeing now is [this provision] in every social-service-related bill that goes to Congress,” said AJCommittee’s Foltin. “It is the strategy” of the White House and congressional Republicans, Foltin said, adding, “each time it comes up, we oppose it.”
Other Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Congress, Hadassah and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, also have opposed such provisions. While those groups have not issued an official position on the bill’s “faith-based” provision, they are expected to join lobbying efforts against it given their track record on the issue.
As Head Start advocates prepare for a major lobbying campaign, an organization that claims to be the program’s chief protector, the National Head Start Association, last week filed a First Amendment lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the administration is violating the program providers’ and parent-volunteers’ free-speech rights. The lawsuit follows a letter sent recently by the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the program, to parents and providers, reminding them that the Hatch Act forbids using the welfare system for political purposes and forbids employees paid by the government to use federal funds to lobby Congress.
The association is accusing the administration of using scare tactics to mute legitimate criticism. “Head Start has been around for nearly four decades. No previous administration has seen fit to slap Head Start instructors and parent-volunteers in the mouth with the threat of possible criminal penalties if they use their free-speech rights to urge Congress to preserve the program,” said Sarah Green, the association’s president.
Advocacy groups appear deteremined to fight the bill. But staffers on the House Education Committee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is a good chance that House Democrats could strike a compromise that would allow Congress to pass the bill.
A former Clinton administration official who participated in panels to reassess Head Start said that professionals in the former administration recognized that some aspects of the program should be reformed, at least in order to keep them up to date with recent findings of education research. He mentioned that one reform often cited was intensifying the educational component of the program dealing with literacy and math. The Clinton administration declined to initiate such a reform because of political considerations, the former official said. The official and congressional staffers predicted that House Republicans will try to soften the bill further to obtain bipartisan support.