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President seeks to hand states more control over Head Start

A Bush administration plan to reform Head Start has divided Washington along partisan lines and is sparking complaints from program providers.

Under the plan, eight states, possibly including Florida, would be allowed to take part in a pilot project allowing them to run the federal preschool program for the poor. In addition, the legislation calls for a greater emphasis on reading skills to prepare children for kindergarten.

The plan, in a bill sponsored by Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., made it through the House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently on a straight party line vote, with every Republican voting yes and every Democrat no. The bill should go before the full House of Representatives soon after Congress returns from the July Fourth recess. The Senate has yet to take up the legislation.

Supporters of the legislation say Head Start improves school readiness for poor students, but only marginally. They say Head Start, started in 1965, needs to do better and should be coordinated with the state-run preschool programs available in Florida, 40 other states and Washington.

"They leave better off, but they still are lagging significantly behind their more advantaged peers," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But opponents say giving the program to cash-strapped states will lead to its death. Eight states is only the beginning, they argue, before Washington gives up on the entire program.

They say state-run programs do not have the quality control or parental involvement components of Head Start. And they say expecting Head Start to get poor students to perform like their better-off peers after just a year or two is unrealistic.

Many Head Start students live in neighborhoods infested with drugs and violence and do not have the advantages that educated, well-off parents can provide. They also argue the new legislation ignores the two hallmarks of Head Start, comprehensive services and parental involvement.

Children in Head Start get things like vision and dental checkups. They also are taught how to behave in school and encouraged to be curious about learning. Their brothers and sisters get services, too.

"(Lawmakers) don't want Head Start the way it is. They want Head Start to be a literacy program," said Edward Zigler, a member of the committee that planned Head Start and the federal official responsible for the program under Nixon.