WASHINGTON - In a fight that could affect nearly 1 million poor children, President Bush and Democratic lawmakers are deadlocked over the future of the widely popular Head Start preschool program, and both sides concede they will not settle their exceptionally loud and angry dispute by today's deadline.
The partisan stalemate, unprecedented in the 38-year history of the Head Start program, leaves the program in legislative limbo, its mission and future uncertain, as the two sides battle over Bush's desire to give states control of the program and refocus its currently multifaceted curriculum on literacy.
Advocates of Head Start, including many of those who run the nation's Head Start centers, accuse Bush of trying to dismantle the $6.6 billion program, a legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty, and they say the administration has tried to bully them into silence.
Bush aides, in turn, say Head Start officials are using "disinformation" to block vital changes and to protect the "fiefdoms" they've created with their local centers. The dispute has culminated in a bitter fight over this year's authorization process in Congress, during which the program's structure will be defined for the next five years.
"This was the most abrasive, adversarial authorization I have ever seen, and I've been to every one of them since the beginning," said Edward Zigler of Yale University, who has worked on Head Start since he helped develop it in the Johnson administration in the 1960s.
This sort of vitriolic fight, while not uncommon in Washington on a variety of issues, had been virtually unheard of when it came to Head Start. While disagreements over the program's curriculum have arisen in the past, lawmakers said they have never missed the deadline for reauthorizing Head Start. Money would still flow to Head Start centers if today's deadline is missed, but the fate of Head Start could remain uncertain indefinitely.
In July, the House approved Bush's proposal by 217-216, after scaling it back to attract votes from those reluctant to support far-reaching changes. Sponsors reduced from 50 to eight the number of states that would be given control of Head Start as part of a pilot program.
Even so, no Democrats supported the bill, and it passed only after Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson promised Rep. Ron Lewis and other Kentucky Republicans - in writing - that if they voted for the bill Kentucky would be exempted from its most controversial provisions.
Lewis told his constituents that the exemption would "protect our state from being subject to an early and uncertain pilot program." His spokesman, Michael Dodge, added, "The only way we could get that exemption was to vote in favor of this."
Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, complained to Thompson this month that the Kentucky deal is "extremely alarming." But administration officials said the offer was similar to many last-minute legislative deals and was entirely proper.
Meanwhile, some outside groups fighting Bush's plans have accused the administration of trying to bully them into silence. When the National Head Start Association began lobbying against the bill last spring, its members received an administration memo warning that they could be violating a federal law that forbids those involved in federal programs from using federal funds to lobby.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.