Expanding the federal preschool program for poor children is a good goal, but first more money needs to be spent on existing teachers and facilities, Head Start officials and workers said Thursday. William S. Fillmore Jr., president of the Florida Head Start Directors Association, compared expanding Head Start to weakening a good pot of soup.
"If you continue to put water in a pot of soup, eventually you will have nothing but water," Fillmore told reporters at a news conference called to mark the 25th anniversary of the program and to urge that more money be spent on existing centers and teachers.
A Tallahassee woman, one of several workers and officials from around the state present, told reporters she makes less than $10,000 a year after 12 years with Head Start, the last seven as a teacher.
Katie Witherspoon said sometimes she gets "kind of disgusted" with the pay and considers looking for another job.
"But I know that what I'm doing . . . is very important and that the children need me," Ms. Witherspoon said.
President Bush last month proposed a $500-million spending increase for the program. Bush, who pledged during his campaign to expand Head Start to reach all eligible 4-year-olds, said the new funds would permit Head Start's enrollment to grow to 667,000 children, or 70 percent of those eligible. It now enrolls 39 percent.
Head Start programs emphasize social and learning skills necessary for children to succeed in school. It serves poor children, usually in the year before they enter kindergarten.
The 1,300 local Head Start programs across the country also provide breakfast and lunch and screen children for medical or dental problems. Analysts of both parties and widely diverging political views consider Head Start the most successful of all the government's educational aid programs.
Bush's proposal would increase Head Start spending to $1.9-billion.
Florida is fourth in the country in unmet need, according to Sarah Greene, director of the Manatee County Head Start program and past president of the National Head Start Association.
A third of the state's 67 counties do not have Head Start programs, and only $4-million of the $49-million the state is spending on pre-kindergarten services goes into the federal program, which requires a 20 percent local funding contribution.
Slightly more than 13,000 Florida children are enrolled in Head Start programs, but twice that many are on waiting lists, according to Fillmore and Ms. Greene.