President Bush arrived at a Catonsville Head Start center today 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 was 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.
Wade Horn, commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, said today Mr. Bush will ask Congress to add $600 million to the $2.2 billion appropriated for Head Start this year. It would be the largest increase he has sought so far for the program, which last year got a $100 million boost in the Bush budget.
Mr. Horn said that with the increase, Head Start would have enough money for 80 percent of the eligible children to enroll for at least one year.
Mr. Bush said the increase would add 157,000 youngsters to the Head Start rolls.
Administration officials said that would be enough to fulfill the president's 1988 campaign pledge to fully fund the federal grant program, which has been widely recognized for its benefits to poor and disadvantaged children.
Head Start now serves about 621,000 pre-schoolers, mostly 4-year-olds, who the administration says amount to 60 percent of the eligible children.
But Sarah M. Greene, executive director of the National Head Start Association in Alexandria, Va., said there are actually 2 million low-income 3- and 4-year-olds eligible for Head Start services, and only 28 percent of them are being served.
Some Head Start advocates believe the pre-school sessions, which are aimed at both intellectual and emotional development, should be made available to children aged 2 and 3, as well as to 4-year-olds. That would cost perhaps twice as much as what Mr. Bush is seeking.
Democrats in Congress already are jockeying to raise Bush's bid. They are proposing a $1 billion increase for fiscal 1993, which starts Oct. 1. For the current year, Congress increased Mr. Bush's $100 million request to $250 million, pushing the cost to $2.2 billion.
On his visit today, Mr. Bush visited with children and parents at the Emily Harris Center, which enrolls 68 children in four separate half-day classes.
"It's really a good program," said Deidre James, 22, of Woodlawn, one of about 100 people who stood outside today awaiting the president's arrival.
Mrs. James is a single parent whose husband recently died of cancer. The Head Start program "allows me to go back to school to study law" while her 3-year-old son Troy attends the center.
"He talks much better," Mrs. James said of her son. "He's learning songs. He gets to be around other kids, which is really important."
Locally, there are other Head Start centers in Essex, Dundalk, Middle River, Reisterstown and East Towson. Staff members from those centers waited in the biting cold today to greet their president.
"We need his support," said Carnell Fowlkes, coordinator of the Flemming Head Start Center in Turner Station.
"I would definitely say we need to serve more children," she said.
"Most of our children are from AFDC families [who are in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program]," said Annabyrd I. Jones, the program's supervisor of social services and parent involvement. Ten percent of the children are classified as handicapped.
Baltimore County has more applicants than it can handle. Twelve children are on a waiting list at Emily Harris and 20 at another center.
"It's a very good time for a [budget] increase," said Ms. Jones. "We have so many parents that are unemployed now."
Other program staff members said they needed higher salaries and more classroom equipment like computers.
Mr. Bush also was expected to talk about administration efforts to expand the Head Start program to include more emphasis on helping the parents of eligible children through literacy classes and job training.
There already are some such services available for parents of the 68 children attending the Emily Harris center, said Marianne Anderson, director of the YMCA-Baltimore County Head Start program.