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Don't try to fix Head Start


The administration's plan to shift funding to the states is a bad idea

Head Start is a federal success story. The pre-school education and social service program has a track record of improving the test scores and health of its 900,000 students and of strengthening families. It's not broken, so why does the Bush administration want to fix it?

That question is being asked all over the country, so much so that the federal agency in charge of the program has told Head Start supporters to stop opposing the president's policy, saying their campaign could be a violation of lobbying laws.

That obvious attempt to stifle opposing views is a sign that the Bush administration knows its proposal is in trouble. And it should be.

The administration's plan would shift funding for the program to block grants that would be administered by the states. Currently the funding is part of the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services. The proposal also would put more emphasis on educational aspects of the program and less on helping the families and kids rise above poverty.

Head Start's record of giving disadvantaged kids a better start in life is well-documented and praised by people on both sides of the aisle, including the president himself. That makes the proposal even more curious.

— And it comes at an even more curious time, a time when at least 30 of the 50 states find themselves in deep financial trouble. Look at the sea of red ink, look at the Oregon Legislature's pattern of filling the general fund hole by raiding other funds and ask yourself, Do we want to give the state another pot of money that it can dip into?

The answer is no. Beyond that, even if the state could be counted on to do the right thing with the money, it's far from certain that it would meet the standards or accomplishments of the current Head Start model.

Head Start's success is measured in its graduates. Studies show that among underprivileged children, Head Start kids are much more successful in school in later years. They are less likely to repeat a grade, less likely to require special education, less likely to commit a crime and more likely to graduate from high school and college.

But the program offers much more than a pre-school education. It deals with ' and involves ' entire families, providing meals to children who otherwise would go without and social services to families that desperately need them. It only makes sense that a child is better able to learn and prosper if he or she is able to eat, is able to get medical attention and is able to live in a stable environment.

The program also involves those parents, empowering them to help run the schools and placing an expectation upon them to help make the program successful. About 90 percent of local Head Start parents volunteer at some time, a phenomenal number for any group of people and especially for a group of low-income parents.

Everything about Head Start says this is a program that works. That has been reflected in Congress and in the Bush administration by verbal and financial support. We hope that support continues. We also hope that Congress quickly rejects this latest effort to remake a program that needs no remake.