Head Start Successful Without State Control

[Thomas Moore, "Head Start successful without state control" Charlotte Observer (05/13/03): 11A]

Many Charlotteans reacted strongly when the city announced its plan to cut funding for after-school programs. But few people know about the serious threat to a pioneering effort for low-income children -- Head Start. Head Start serves more than 19,000 children in North Carolina, including thousands in Charlotte. The Bush administration has proposed a radical change, one that ultimately could shift responsibility -- and money -- for Head Start from the federal government to the states.

Today, Head Start money goes from the federal level directly to local, nonprofit agencies that run the program in their communities. Under the Bush proposal, states could request a block grant of money to run the program themselves. Each state could develop its own plan for Head Start. In a few years, we could have 50 versions of Head Start -- or none. Switching control to the states will give the program a layer of bureaucracy it doesn’t need. I don’t understand why the Bush administration wants to change what already works well.

Since its beginning in 1965, Head Start is a proven, comprehensive program that prepares low-income children to enter kindergarten. It includes activities to encourage thinking, listening and pre-reading skills, frequent medical screenings and immunizations, healthy food, and emotional support to parents. Head Start is one of the most researched and evaluated preschool programs in the nation. In a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 94 percent of parents considered Head Start a helpful source of support in raising their children.

I’m intimately involved with Head Start -- as a conference speaker, columnist for the national magazine and staff trainer. I’ve spoken with Head Start directors in Mecklenburg, Gaston, Union and other counties across the country. They all oppose this change. Why? First, there’s the problem of handing a pot of money to cash-strapped states facing huge deficits. Will state governments fully fund Head Start, or will they use the money to plug holes in their existing budgets? (In North Carolina, just last week Gov. Easley announced that most state agencies will have to return up to 5 percent of their budgets to the state because of sluggish tax collections.)

A second, less obvious issue is control of the program. Right now, the people served -- largely poor Caucasians, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans -- are among the ones who lead the program. When I attend conferences, I see far more minorities and low-income people in positions of influence and leadership at Head Start than in other professional organizations devoted to early childhood. That’s one reason Head Start works. It involves more of the people being served, at all levels.

I know from experience how essential this is. Eighteen years ago, I started a children’s choir in a low-income area. A woman from the neighborhood public housing project assisted me. That person was key because she connected me to the parents. From that experience I learned if you haven’t engaged the parents, you can’t help the children nearly as much. Head Start also involves parents who are hard to reach. Last year, 800,000 Head Start parents volunteered in the program. That’s amazing, given the challenges these parents face.

Head Start teaches parents to be more effective advocates for their children. After working with Head Start, some parents go back to school themselves, leading to greater economic security for their families. President Bush has said many times he wants to increase parental involvement as a way to improve education. Head Start accomplishes that. The Bush proposal goes further astray in its assumptions of how children learn to read. The proposal emphasizes academics and testing, without recognizing the complex process that leads to a new reader. Literacy isn’t just about the alphabet and books. It starts with conversations between children, their parents and teachers. If I see a child who talks readily and is interested in many different things, I know it will be much easier to introduce that child to books.

To encourage reading skills, we need to focus on a preschooler’s broader growth and development, not traditional academics. Vision and other health-related problems can influence a child’s ability to learn. Head Start needs to continue offering an array of medical and other services to truly help its students. Under the states, I fear it won’t. Look at the track record. In half of the states, state pre-kindergarten programs do not conduct regular vision, health and dental screenings. These screenings are vital for children from poor homes.

With all the economic issues our nation is facing, the government should devote its energy to something other than dismantling Head Start. Congress is considering this proposal right now. Take a moment to write or call your legislators at (202) 224-3121 and urge them to keep Head Start as is -- funded directly to local agencies. Encourage Congress to consider an increase in Head Start funding. Your response can help keep Head Start a shining example of what government does right.

Thomas Moore, Ph.D is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, early childhood consultant, and children’s recording artist. He is author of Gryphon House award-winning teacher resource books "Where is Thumbkin?" and "Do You Know the Muffin Man?". He is contributing author of Wright Group/McGraw-Hill’s curriculum, DLM Early Childhood Express and author of their literacy series "Music, Movement and More". He has also produced ten recordings for children.