WASHINGTON – Congress on Wednesday passed and sent to President Bush a five-year Head Start bill that opens up the popular preschool program to more children while taking steps to see that the program is well-run and that its teachers are better qualified.
Bush, while unhappy with several aspects of the bill — particularly the failure to include language allowing religious groups receiving Head Start grants to hire and fire staffers based on their religious affiliations — is expected to sign it.
The House passed the bill 381-36. Hours later the Senate approved it 95-0.
"Head Start remains a cornerstone in this country's efforts to help all children learn, to combat poverty, and to provide all Americans with the opportunity to meet their fullest potential," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "This bipartisan legislation will help more poor children reach school age ready to learn and thrive."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recalled that the program for low-income children had its origins in the early 1960s when his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, tackled the problem of juvenile delinquency. Research found that alleviating poverty and increasing early education were crucial.
Head Start was created in 1965 as an eight-week summer program providing classes and health care. It has since reached 24 million children, Kennedy said. "But its mission has remained the same, to help our most vulnerable children succeed in school and in life."
The White House has protested the failure to include language giving religious groups seeking Head Start grants autonomy over whom they hire. Opponents said that could sanction religious discrimination for entities receiving federal money.
The White House also objected to the elimination of a testing regime for 4-year-olds, saying it was the one tool that effectively measures children's progress.
The 42-year-old education, nutrition and health program, mainly for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, hasn't been reauthorized since 2003. Since then, Congress has approved money for the program but has been unable to make substantial changes in it.
Head Start enrolls about 900,000 children.
The bill would approve $7.35 billion for fiscal year 2008 including funds to add 8,000 toddlers to the Early Head Start program for children under age 3. It promotes participation of homeless and migrant children as well as children who are disabled or learning English.
It raises the eligibility ceiling from 100 percent of the poverty level for a family of four, about $20,650, to 130 percent or $26,845, while giving priority to the neediest children. It also sets a deadline of 2013 for half of all Head Start classroom teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree in early childhood education.
Republican leaders welcomed provisions to assure that Health Start programs are run efficiently and that bad programs can be terminated.
"Congressional Republicans have spoken out against shameful examples of waste, fraud and abuse that cheat poor children in the Head Start program," said House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, expressing satisfaction that the bill adopted many of the financial controls backed by his party.