Monday, April 5, 2004

Head Start proponents remain leery of state control


Click here to e-mail Denise Smith Amos
Head Start has been taking some hard knocks lately.

The nearly 40-year-old program that brings preschool education to poor youngsters used to be universally acclaimed as a program that worked.

But two national studies comparing Head Start kids with average 4-year-old preschoolers nationwide cast doubts on how well Head Start levels the playing field for poor kids by the time they enter kindergarten.

Head Start serves 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in poverty-level families. (By 2003 standards, that's a three-member family earning less than $15,000 a year).

The Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) compared Head Start kids with average preschool students in 1997 and 2000.

It found that Head Start pupils improved certain skills after one year but on average scored below the 23rd percentile on tests of vocabulary, early math and writing.

Calling this a school readiness gap, the Bush Administration and Congress are pushing for states to control Head Start. Proponents say that would build accountability, efficiency and higher academic standards into Head Start.

But Head Start proponents point out that states are finding ways to cut the Head Start funds they already control. Giving states more control, they say, will tempt them to divert it.

In Ohio, state Head Start funding fell from $98 million annually to $56 million for the fiscal year that ends in July. The number of kids served in state Head Start fell from 18,000 to 11,600, said Barbara Haxton, executive director of the Ohio Head Start Association in Centerville. Gov. Bob Taft is restructuring Head Start into "Head Start Plus," which will fund 40 hours of year-round child care as well as half-day Head Start instruction for 10,000 kids. It also will pay for half-day Head Start instruction alone for 4,000 kids beginning in July.

Haxton says that mixes Head Start funds with child-care dollars, also being cut in Columbus. And the 10,000 Head Start Plus kids will lose medical and social services they received under traditional Head Start, she said.

Besides, Haxton asks, how will state control translate into improved readiness for Head Start kids?

Research is ongoing to find ways to do that. The Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center at the University of Cincinnati has won a grant to develop techniques teachers and psychologists can use to boost kindergarten readiness.

"We're trying to capture the essence of school readiness. ... What inhibits some children from learning?" said Victoria Carr, director of the center, which teaches 99 Head Start youngsters.

The grant is part of PNC Financial Services Group Inc.'s plan to invest $100 million in cash, volunteerism and advocacy in early childhood education programs nationwide over the next 10 years.



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