Head Start Loses Some Elbow Room

Head Start, one of the few Great Society initiatives left intact from the Johnson administration, is today facing competition from state-run programs.

A high school teacher who grew up in Minnesota, a guidance counselor raised on a reservation in Montana, and a social worker in south Florida were among the many former students who came forward to sing Head Start's praises when the preschool program celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1995.

All were quick to insist that time spent in Head Start classrooms had everything to do with shaping the lives and jobs they enjoy today.

But this fall, children living in the old neighborhoods of these alums could find themselves in a different kind of program - one sponsored by the state. With state-level prekindergarten offerings shooting up as rapidly as mushrooms after a rainstorm, the well-defined territory that once belonged to Head Start is now turning into a more crowded and complex playing field.

"At least 30 states and maybe 31 now have some form of prekindergarten program," says Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. Prior to 1980, he points out, there were only 10 states sponsoring any kind of prekindergarten initiative. One of the jobs both Head Start and the state programs now face is to discover "how to intersect and interface."

Several states have today adopted Head Start standards to use as guidelines for their own programs and some work in close partnership with the federal group. But others have yet to forge any kind of real relationship with the program, and for some it raises questions about Head Start's future. There are even those who wonder if it makes sense for the federal government to continue to work with three- and four-year-olds, when so many states are today moving to fill that gap themselves.

Head Start is one of the few programs left intact from the Johnson administration's Great Society initiatives of the 1960s. The federally funded project was designed to offer a leg up to children of low-income families.

One of the revolutionary features of Head Start was its focus on "the whole child." School readiness is achieved through work with kids' academic, physical, emotional, and social needs. Nutrition and hygiene are important pieces of the Head Start pie, as is parental involvement.

But some say it's time to rethink Head Start. The $4.4 billion now being spent by the federal government on Head Start "should be sent in block grants to the states for them to determine how best to prepare their students," says Nina Shokraii, an education-policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "States and people closer to the children should take over, not the federal government saying, 'This is what your children need' from miles away."

Strong state programs

Professor Zigler, an original founder of Head Start, is one of the authors of a recently released report entitled "Should Head Start be devolved to the states?"

He is quick to point to areas in which certain of the state programs may be surpassing Head Start. "Some states don't use the poverty line as the cutoff" for eligibility as Head Start does, Zigler says. "The early-education programs are better in some cases and teachers are paid more and better qualified" than in Head Start programs. State spending on prekindergarten varies widely (see chart, left) with some states well above Head Start outlays of $4,000 per child, and others considerably below.

But, Zigler insists, a handful of strong state programs don't diminish the importance of Head Start. What almost all state programs still lack, he says, is the comprehensive nature of Head Start. "The health and family services, the parental involvement inherent in Head Start, that's what the state programs are missing," Zigler says. "You'd lose that piece of it without Head Start."

Also lost would be "a clear commitment to quality and research," says Olivia Golden, assistant secretary for children and families in the US Department of Health and Human Services. "Any kind of block grant would give that up." Over these past 30 years, Head Start has served as an inspiration and stimulus in the field of early childhood development, argues Dr. Golden.

"The explosion of interest in prekindergarten programs comes as a result of Head Start," she says. According to Golden, as the interest grows, the federal program will continue to have a role to play both as innovator and standard-setter.

Still, there is little likelihood that even with Head Start and the growing number of local programs, that supply will outstrip demand. In most areas, even the most at-risk children remain underserved. Head Start, which offers services to children from families living below the federal poverty line, still reaches only about 40 percent - or 40,000 - of the nation's eligible children.

But in some states, children that do qualify sometimes find themselves enrolled in a complex concoction of programs. In Ohio, for instance, children who need full day care often shuttle back and forth between different programs - Head Start and others - throughout the course of the day, says Susan Rohrbough, who until recently was early childhood director in the office of the governor.

Mix of programs beneficial

The arrangement has its advantages, however, Ms. Rohrbough says. "Having that range of programs from federally to locally funded keeps us all honest," she says. "We challenge each other, we learn from each other." In addition, she says, nothing on a state or local level could ever replicate Head Start's role as a standard bearer. "It raises the bar for all of us."

In New York, where Head Start is also one piece of a continuum of early childhood services, Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, agrees that a mix of programs works well to serve children's needs. As for Head Start, she would prefer to change as little as possible.

"Why tamper with something with a proven track record, something that really works?" she asks. "The only criticism anyone ever has of Head Start is that there's not enough of it."

More recently, Head Start launched its Early Head Start program, designed for children from birth to three-years-old. The program, still in the experimental stage, is now operating at about 200 sites across the country. Zigler says that's where he'd like to see the federal government focus its attention should the older Head Start programs ever devolve to the states.

"We may well see a time when the states take over, if they do a good job," he predicts. "And that would free up a huge kitty of money for Early Head Start."

But Golden says she sees the shift in focus as an unlikely scenario. While agreeing that interest in Early Head Start is likely to soar - "the need for that will only grow" - she says it will not come at the expense of the original program. "We don't want to trade the two off."

* Send comments to: coeymanm@csps.com

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