Head Start (search) classes are designed to help prepare preschoolers for elementary schools, but a new study says that progress comes at a great cost and the results are not as high as supporters hoped.

"While making some progress, Head Start is not doing enough to enhance the language, pre-reading and pre-mathematics knowledge and skills that we know are important for school readiness ... Children continue to lag behind national norms when they exit Head Start," the Health and Human Services Department (search) report reads.

The report said children who graduated from Head Start — the federal program to help poor children prepare for elementary school — in the year 2000 performed far below the national average in vocabulary, letter recognition, early writing and mathematics.

In last year's State of the Union address, President Bush unveiled reforms for the $6.7 billion programs. He later campaigned for it in Pennsylvania, advocating tougher standards and new curricula that emphasize basic learning skills.

"States must take steps to provide pre-kindergarten programs with guidelines on pre-reading and literacy skills, and they must have a plan to expand the training of child care and preschool teachers in their state," Bush said at the time.

Head Start, created in 1965, has been something of a bipartisan budgetary sacred cow. The programs currently serve about one million children a year. Bush wants to combine new education standards with more flexibility so states can spend federal dollars more creatively.

But critics contend the Bush plan would make it easier for states to use Head Start money on other priorities, leaving Head Start teachers forced to meet higher standards with less money.

"Every child in America deserves a head start and if we reduce the standards of quality, if we reduce the opportunities for high quality in early childhood programs, we compromise our ability to provide children with that head start," said Mark Ginsberg of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (search).

Congress is scheduled to rewrite the Head Start law this year. A key Bush ally, Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, knows Head Start's limitations. He dealt with them as a governor before coming to Washington.

"This is not a radical proposal at all," Castle said. "It's limited to a certain number of states, it's not a block grant proposal. You have to continue to provide services at least at the same level of what you do today and probably at an enhanced level. You have to submit a plan each year. I think if people look at it carefully they would realize it is providing greater opportunities for children."

The president says he wants Head Start programs to look more like real classrooms and less like daycare centers, but many question whether states can find qualified teachers to meet higher education standards. Critics say they can't, and therefore, the president is setting up Head Start for a failure.