President Bush helicoptered to a Catonsville Head Start center today to try to inspire some election-year gratitude with an announcement he is seeking a $600 million boost in financing for the popular early learning program.
Mr. Bush visited two classrooms at the Emily Harris Head Start Center, which enrolls 68 children. He chatted with children about their favorite bathtub toys, trips to the dentist and how to talk on the telephone.
One group of pre-schoolers sang a song and the president chimed in. "Friends, Friends, Friends, 1, 2, 3. All my friends are here with me," they sang.
The president also met privately with Gov. William Donald Schaefer for about 20 minutes, listening to the governor's pleas for federal relief from federal Medicare mandates and help with school construction and programs for young criminal offenders.
The president's appearance at the 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.
"We're taking a major step forward," the president said of the proposed increase, the largest during his term. "I hope it will go a long way toward meeting our first education goal, and that is getting kids ready to learn."
Mr. Bush proposed a $100 million increase for Head Start in the current federal budget, but Congress increased that to $250 million, pushing the cost to $2.2 billion.
Wade Horn, commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, said today that with the additional increase,Head Start would have enough money for more than 80 percent of the eligible children to enroll for at least one year.
Administration officials said the increase would add 158,000 youngsters to the Head Start rolls. 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, the officials said.
In addition to getting typical pre-school instruction, children receive hot meals and vaccinations. Parents, who are encouraged to visit the centers regularly, also can attend workshops on child care and preparing nutritional meals.
"Head Start is about the family," Mr. Bush said during a brief speech to parents, children and staffers gathered in the center's gymnasium. "Head Start couldn't be the success it is without the direct involvement of parents," he said.
Head Start now serves about 621,000 pre-schoolers, mostly 4-year-olds, who the administration says are 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.
Democrats in Congress are proposing a $1 billion increase for fiscal 1993, which starts Oct. 1.
"It's really a good program," said Deidre James, 22, of Woodlawn. Her 3-year-old son, Troy, attends the Emily Harris center.
Mrs. James is a single parent whose husband died of cancer in September at age 26. She said the Head Start program allows her to go back to school to study law while Troy is in school.
Barbara Smith of Woodlawn, who participated in one of Mr. Bush's classroom visits with her son, Matthew, 4, said the president "seems like he's going for education. I'm really glad about that."
But her companion, Dale Campbell, who has been unemployed for about a year, called the president's visit "purely politics."
"We need his support," said Carnell Fowlkes, coordinator of the Flemming Head Start Center in Turner's Station. She was among a group of Head Start staff members from centers in Essex, Dundalk, Middle River, Reisterstown and East Towson and elsewhere who waited in the biting cold today to greet the president.
"We definitely need to serve more children," Ms. Fowlkes said.
Other program staff members said they need higher salaries and more classroom equipment, including computers.
Aides to Mr. Schaefer said that during the governor's meeting with the president, Mr. Bush listened sympathetically while they strolled around a Head Start lunchroom.
Schaefer said later that he stayed up last night making a list of topics to cover with the president.