WASHINGTON -- President Bush is due at a Catonsville Head Start center this morning to try to inspire a little election-year gratitude with an announcement that he is seeking a major boost in financing for the popular early-learning program.
The president's appearance at the Emily Harris Head Start Center is part of a series of budget "teasers" intended to get maximum political benefit from the good news in the spending plan Mr. Bush will offer to Congress next week.
Mr. Bush is expected to announce this morning that he will ask Congress to add more than $500 million to the $2.2 billion appropriated for Head Start this year.
Administration officials said the new money would be enough to fulfill the president's 1988 campaign pledge of fully funding the federalgrant program, which has been widely recognized for its ability to give poor and disadvantaged children an extra boost into school. But not everyone agrees on what constitutes full funding.
Head Start now serves about 621,000 preschoolers, mostly 4-year-olds, which the administration says amounts to 60 percent of theeligible children. Mr. Bush's new budget would enable the program to be offered to about 80 percent of the eligible 4-year-olds, according to an administration official, who said experience has shown that the remaining 20 percent cannot be helped for one reason or another.
But some Head Start advocates believe the preschool sessions, which are aimed at both intellectual and emotional development, should be made available to children ages 2 and 3, as well as to 4-year-olds.
"It probably will not be enough to reach everybody," Frances Chapman, director of the Saint Frances Head Start Center in Baltimore, said yesterday of Mr. Bush's budget request. "But it will allow some expansion to reach more children, some increase in salary and benefits for the staff and cost-of-living increases for the program."
Mr. Bush is also expected to talk about administration efforts to expand the Head Start program for greater emphasis on helping the parents of eligible children through literacy classes and job training.
There are already some such services available for parents of the 68 children attending the Emily Harris Center, where the president will spend about an hour this morning, according to Marianne Anderson, director of the YMCA-Baltimore County Head Start program.
But she said she suspects Mr. Bush chose that center for his visit "because it's easy for him to get in and out quickly."
Head Start is a natural target for the president's ambitions to enhance his image on the domestic front.
He has been trying to convince voters that he is sensitive to the plight of those left jobless and squeezed by the recession. And, thenotion of using federal money to reach potentially vulnerable children while they still have a chance to improve their lot is supported by liberals and conservatives alike.
Head Start also fits with one of Mr. Bush's education goals: making sure all American children are ready to learn by the time they get to school.
He and Congress have battled over how to finance the program,with the lawmakers increasing his requests some years and cutting them in others. But Head Start remains perhaps the only Great Society program still considered a success.
In a similar political gesture last week, Mr. Bush announced a $20 million pilot program for job training during a trip to Atlanta to commemorate the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.