The House voted Thursday to let Head Start (search) centers consider religion when hiring workers, overshadowing its moves to strengthen the preschool program's academics and finances.

The Republican-led House approved a bill that lets churches and other faith-based preschool centers hire only people who share their religion, yet still receive federal tax dollars.

Democrats blasted that idea as discriminatory.

Launched in the 1960s, the nearly $7 billion Head Start program provides comprehensive education to more than 900,000 poor children. Though credited for getting kids ready for school, Head Start has drawn scrutiny as cases of financial waste and questions about academic quality have surfaced nationwide.

Overall, the House bill would insert more competition into Head Start grants, require greater disclosure of how money is spent, and try to improve collaboration among educators in different grades. Yet on Thursday, the dispute over religion eroded the bipartisan support for Head Start's renewal.

The House passed the bill 231-184; only 23 Democrats voted for it.

GOP lawmakers, with backing from the White House (search), contend that preschool centers should not have to give up their religious autonomy in order to receive federal grants.

"This is about our children, and denying them exemplary services just because the organization happens to be a religious one is just cruel," said Rep. Virginia Foxx (search), R-N.C.

The Republican plan would, for example, let a Catholic church that provides Head Start services employ only Catholic child-care workers.

Democrats and Republicans offered different interpretations of whether the Constitution, federal law and court rulings protected — or prevented — federally aided centers from hiring based on religion.

"Congress should not be in the business of supporting state-sponsored discrimination," said Rep. Alcee Hastings (search), D-Fla. Said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif.: "The (Republican) majority has decided to choose religious discrimination over what could have been a rare bipartisan agreement."

Rep. John Boehner (search) of Ohio, the Republican chairman of the House education committee, said former President Clinton signed four bills into law that allowed religiously based hiring. Boehner rejected appeals to withdraw the religion-based amendment. The House passed the amendment 220-196 along near party lines. Ten Democrats voted for it. That vote came before the final vote on the overall bill.

Without a change in law, Boehner said, "Faith-based organizations are forced to relinquish their protected rights to hire individuals who share their beliefs."

On academics, the bill would prod Head Start centers to work with school districts and teach to state academic standards or risk losing their federal money. That strategy of academic coordination helped win bipartisan support for the bill, very different from the last time.

By a single vote in 2003, the House passed a bill that would have let up to eight states apply for control over Head Start, drawing opposition from every Democrat. That experimental shift in power died when Congress didn't pass a Head Start law that year, and the new bill does not include the provision.

The bill would temporarily halt the federal test given to hundreds of thousands of 4-year-old and 5-year-old children in Head Start until a National Academy of Sciences review is completed.

The Government Accountability Office found this year that the test, called the National Reporting System, has numerous flaws. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., asked for the suspension and Boehner agreed, saying the test should not be given until Congress is assured its results are accurate.

The House bill, approved 48-0 by the chamber's education committee in May, would reauthorize the Head Start program through 2011. A similar measure in the Senate is pending.