Lobby Group Drops Head Start Lawsuit

An advocacy group on Wednesday dropped its lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services after the agency agreed to write a new letter to Head Start (search) centers around the country clarifying limits on lobbying activities by teachers and staffs.

The National Head Start Association sued the department last month, alleging that a letter written in May by a top HHS official violated the First Amendment (search).

It warned that Head Start center employees who urge parents to call lawmakers to complain about Bush administration overhaul proposals may be violating laws that prohibit certain political activity.

After a court hearing Monday, the department and the association agreed on language in a new letter that was sent Wednesday to Head Start centers.

"We are all at liberty to contact our representatives about our political thoughts and concerns. It was not my intention to discourage such activities, but rather to provide information concerning what grantees cannot do using Head Start program funds and resources," wrote Windy Hill, associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau at HHS.

Sarah Greene, the Head Start association's chief executive officer, said Hill's initial letter violated free speech guarantees in the Constitution by attempting to stifle opposition from teachers and parents to the administration's plans for the 38-year-old program.

HHS disputed those claims, but said the new letter's message is completely clear.

"We are very pleased that we agreed on a letter that clarifies the issue very, very much," said Greene.

Head Start annually helps nearly a million 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families prepare for kindergarten. The program is up for renewal this year.

As part of the reauthorization legislation, Republicans in the House have proposed giving a handful of states the option of taking over Head Start programs now directed by HHS, and blending them with existing state-financed preschool programs.

The association objects to giving states control of Head Start, saying it would weaken national standards and give state officials an opening to divert money from the program.