Head Start reforms narrowly pass U.S. House

Hawai`i Reps. Neil Abercrombie and Ed Case yesterday voted against a bill that would make several changes to the federal government’s Head Start preschool education program, which in Hawai`i serves 2,700 children with $22 million in annual funding. Nonetheless, the “School Readiness Act of 2003” (H.R. 2210) passed by one vote, and now goes to the Senate. “This bill puts an end to Head Start as we know it,” Abercrombie said today.

While the bill includes several provisions supported by both Democrats and Republicans, such as raising teacher qualifications and academic performance standards, critics charge it improperly shifts power to states and would allow “Head Start” programs to hire people based on their religion.

Abercrombie said the bill “undermines key features which have made it the most successful early childhood program ever.”

As passed, the bill shifts Head Start funding to a system of block grants to states. Since the bill doesn’t set maximum class sizes or student-teacher ratios, cash-strapped states could conceivably place a substantial burden on Head Start programs. Further, Abercrombie said, it calls for more teacher training, but offers no funds to provide it.

In fact, he said, the proposed changes would cut key funding areas and otherwise freeze the Head Start budget at current levels.

The bill also cuts off eligibility for residents of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. Abercrombie had offered an amendment to restore it, but House leaders refused to put it to a floor vote.

“It’s very sad to see Republicans abandon the commitment they made to parents and keiki in Hawaii and across the country,” Abercrombie said.

The unusually close vote was 217-216. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephart, a presidential hopeful, skipped the vote to campaign in South Carolina. Arizona Rep. Ed Pastor missed the vote as well, arriving on a late flight.

A tie vote would have killed the bill.

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