Forgotten priorities

July 07, 2004

THE SIDESHOW threatens to steal the spotlight from what's significant in Congress' protracted stalemate over the future of Head Start. It's a tiresome drama from which no child in need benefits. For while the administration and the advocates for Head Start trade allegations of mismanagement within one of the nation's most successful anti-poverty programs, good ideas are going nowhere.

What Head Start most needs from Congress right now is a bipartisan five-year plan for improving the quality and effectiveness of services for the nation's poorest 3- and 4-year-olds - especially those services that make the most difference in their readiness for school. And it needs a spending plan that adequately supports it.

A number of worthy components for such a proposal have already been raised. For example, the nation should require a bachelor's degree for Head Start teachers, and compensate them accordingly; strengthen collaborations between these locally run federal programs and the public elementary schools; and further improve the curriculum and instruction to achieve gains, especially in literacy.

There's consensus around some of these issues, but now the quagmire of election-year politics is thwarting progress.

All sides remain hung up over an administration-backed House proposal that would allow a few states experimentally to manage Head Start's programs. That small piece of a much larger legislative package met with formidable opposition. What proponents see as an effort to empower states, the other side portrays as an attempt to curtail Head Start spending and social services. Lost in the conversation is the potential benefit: Maryland, for example, might be able to use such a pilot program to ensure that its poorest children are better prepared to enter kindergarten. Whether it could be done cost-effectively, without reducing the number of children helped or the services provided, would be a concern - one that begs for study, not an out-of-hand dismissal.

Last September, Senate Democrats countered the House legislation with a proposal to improve Head Start without the controversial pilot project. Yet lawmakers still are no closer to an agreement, and the public's time is being wasted with airings of dirty laundry. Improving Head Start was supposed to be a goal of this Congress, but the arguing has strayed too far afield of what's best for the children. It's time to get priorities straight.

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