Bush needs to learn ABCs on Head Start

April 08, 2002

"AN EQUAL chance at achievement" for every preschool-age child is the new plank in President Bush's education-reform agenda.

His heart may be in the right place, but he seems to have misplaced his wallet.

No new funds accompanied his announcement last week of plans to make reading readiness a Head Start priority. Neither did he propose expanding Head Start, the federal pre-kindergarten program serving some 900,000 poor children -- and only 65 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds who could be helped.

Critics at the National Head Start Association say his budget proposal for 2003 includes a small increase, but doesn't keep pace with inflation and so likely would result in fewer children being served.

Last week, we heard the president talk about worthy principles: teaching the teachers and holding them accountable by linking program funding to results. He said he would order new training in techniques for teaching reading for the nation's 50,000 Head Start teachers.

Then he called on Congress to find $45 million for new studies in early childhood reading.

Volumes of research already confirm the link between early literacy basics and long-term academic success. Children who enter primary grades ready to learn do better in school all the way through graduation. Those who aren't reading by age 9 risk foundering, not just in school but in life. So Mr. Bush's focus on early childhood education correctly shines a spotlight on reading readiness and the need for quality teaching.

Head Start program chiefs want him to remember that many of their programs already have literacy components. Letter and number recognition, speech sounds, vocabulary -- these aren't new lessons. What Mr. Bush is tinkering with is the mandate of the programs, which currently serve the whole child -- including cognitive, emotional, social and nu- tritional needs that can hold some kids back from learning.

Here in Maryland, where about 10,500 children fill 216 Head Start programs, President Bush's new teacher training is welcomed. What program officials would really like, though, is the money to make the Head Start day longer than 2 1/2 hours. And maybe a little more, so that more children could participate.

During the boom times of the Clinton administration, investment was real: Head Start's budget nearly tripled during the '90s, and enrollment blossomed. The administration's goal of serving 1 million children by 2002 was nearly achieved.

But there is still more to be done. If Mr. Bush wants to level the playing field for disadvantaged children, as he says he does, he's going to have to think bigger, dig deeper and spend more.

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