September 22, 2005

House renews Head Start preschool programs

By Joanne Kenen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives on
Thursday approved bipartisan legislation to extend the popular
Head Start early childhood program despite controversy over the
role of faith-based groups.

The School Readiness Act, which is backed by the White
House, passed 231-184, with 23 Democrats and 10 Republicans
crossing party lines. The Senate has not yet taken up companion

About 900,000 low-income preschoolers take part in Head
Start, a popular 40-year-old program that aims to prepare poor
youngsters for school and close the achievement gap with their
more affluent peers.

The bill seeks to improve Head Start programs by requiring
more teachers to have college degrees in early childhood
education or related fields. It also sets higher standards and
greater financial accountability, goals that were supported by
conservatives and liberals alike.

Children who attend Head Start programs start school more
prepared than those with similar backgrounds who do not attend,
said Delaware Republican Rep. Mike Castle who helped write the

"However, Head Start students continue to enter
kindergarten well below national norms in school readiness," he
said after the vote. "By moving to close this school readiness
gap, this bill will improve results for almost a million Head
Start students across the nation."

Versions of Head Start legislation considered in recent
years were more politically polarizing. Some conservatives
wanted to partly dismantle the 40-year-old federal program by
turning it over to the states. Others wanted standardized
testing for preschoolers.

This version came to the House floor with broad bipartisan
support, but that was eroded after the amendment about
faith-based groups was added.

The controversy was not whether faith-based groups should
run Head Start programs; dozens already do, and people across
the political spectrum welcome them. The fight was over whether
they should be able to use religious criteria for hiring, which
critics said could lead to religious discrimination.

"A faith-based initiative has no place in Head Start," said
Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat. "Don't start the
resegregation of America."

The White House backed the faith-based provision, saying it
would protect religious group from having to "forfeit their
religious hiring autonomy."