Bush to Head Start backers: Shut up!

The administration warns the popular preschool program that protesting the White House's controversial policy changes may be illegal -- but program supporters strike back.

Published May 31, 2003 8:17PM (EDT)

On May 8, the Bush administration sent a letter to Head Start programs nationwide warning them in chirpy, bureaucratic language to shut up about the president's policies toward the early childhood program.

The letter, signed by Windy Hill, associate commissioner of the Head Start Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services, was a response to a campaign by the private, nonprofit National Head Start Association urging Head Start parents and employees to write or e-mail their representatives to protest what they say is the president's dismantling of the program. "Your political activities are governed and, in many ways, restricted or limited by federal law," Hill's letter said.

It goes on to suggest, without citing examples, that the Head Start letter writers had misused federal funds, a charge the association vigorously denies. "Simply stated, the request by the advocacy group [the National Head Start Association] appears to encourage Head Start programs to use Head Start program funds and/or staff in a manner that is in direct violation of the laws that govern your political activities. If information will be or has been disseminated pursuant to a request from an advocacy group, that dissemination would constitute promotion of lobbying, which is a prohibited use of Federal funds. If a grantee has done this, it must prove that Federal funds, or resources purchased with those funds -- such as Head Start staff time and facilities -- were not used as requested by the staff group."

The National Head Start Association insists it never asked Head Start staff to spend either time or resources on protest. It simply tried to mobilize the Head Start community in a letter-writing campaign against the president's plan -- much of which is incorporated in a House bill introduced May 21 -- that has already resulted in more than 30,000 e-mail messages being sent to congressmen and governors.

"We have told people for years, 'Do not use federal funds to send letters, do not use a fax machine purchased with federal money, do not use a postage meter to send letters," says Ron Herndon, chairman of the National Head Start Association. "If in fact some person did that, the way that's handled normally is that a regional officer will get in touch and say, 'You've committed a grave offense,' but that has not happened to anyone in this country [during this campaign]," he says.

Though they weren't breaking the law, Sarah Greene, president of the National Head Start Association, says some frightened Head Start directors asked whether they should stop talking to parents about the proposed legislation. "It was an effort to chill the response from parents and those in the community who are opposed to what the Bush administration is proposing to do," she says.

Now, The National Head Start Association is trying to prove that it's the administration's infringements on free speech that are restricted or limited by federal law. National Head Start Association lawyers have written to Hill's office demanding a retraction. If they don't get one by June 3, they're going to court to demand an injunction. Hill's office has not responded to the National Head Start Association's lawyers and did not return calls seeking comment.

The conflict started when the National Head Start Association, a lobbying group made up of Head Start staffers and families, began its "Save Head Start" campaign on April 16. The campaign was a response to a White House plan to turn Head Start's administration over to the states, a move that Head Start advocates say would change and potentially dismantle the program.

Founded 38 years ago, Head Start is designed to prepare low-income children to enter kindergarten. Serving around 900,000 children, the program takes a comprehensive approach, providing medical care, food and parental counseling as well as preschool education. Indeed, parental involvement is one of its hallmarks -- half the governing committee of every Head Start center is composed of parents, and Greene notes that there are 700,000 Head Start parent volunteers around the country. "Head Start is the parents' program," says Edward Zigler, a Yale psychology professor who helped invent Head Start and ran it in the Nixon administration. "It was created that way."

Right now, Head Start money goes directly from the federal government to community associations that administer the program. Under the Bush proposal, though, governors could request their share of the money as a block grant to be administered on the state level. According to Zigler, the states wouldn't be required to involve parents in the same way, nor would they be required to provide the same level of healthcare and social services to Head Start families.

Yet, as Zigler points out, Head Start works far better as is than Title I, a state-administered block grant program designed to help poor students. "The consensus on Title I is that it hasn't accomplished very much," says Zigler. "The evidence on Head Start is quite good. Children who experience Head Start, compared to similar children who have not, are much more school ready. Study after study after study demonstrates this."

Zigler actually works with the Bush administration -- he's on a committee advising Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, about Head Start. "I'm not their enemy," he says.

But he sees no rationale save ideology for the president's attempt to restructure the program. "There's no reason to do it," he says. "State programs don't have the two pillars of Head Start, parent involvement and comprehensive services. I can't think of a worse time to give Head Start to governors. Governors today are in such bad financial situations, they're cutting preschool, they're cutting back on full-day kindergarten. What worries me is whether the motivation [for governors] is, hey, get this money into my state and we'll figure out how to use it so my deficit isn't so bad." As Herndon says, "These states are broke as the Ten Commandments. This money comes into a state and it's gone."

The Bush administration, he says, claims to want to enhance Head Start's emphasis on literacy and numeracy, but there's no evidence that state control will accomplish this. What will accomplish it, Zigler says, is hiring teachers with B.A. degrees, which Head Start can't afford, and which the 2 percent increase in Head Start funding that Bush has proposed will do little to help. "You can't say we want more literacy but we're only going to give you a 2 percent increase," he says.

One of the ironies of the president's proposal is that, under the conservative guise of shifting power from the federal government to the states, it actually would greatly reduce the local control of the program that exists now. "Head Start was created with the idea that parents are important and the community in which they exist is important, and they run Head Start," Zigler says. "What's happened in the Bush years is it's no longer the parents' or communities' program. It's being managed from above."

Recently, he says, every Head Start program had to send a representative to a training session to learn a curriculum from Texas that the administration favors. "There are about a dozen curricula that are equally as good as far as the science shows," Zigler says. "I've been in Republican administrations before. This is the first time it's being micromanaged by the Head Start Bureau under Windy Hill."

The Save Head Start campaign was an attempt to assert the control that communities have traditionally had over the program.

Hill's warning letter to the Head Start programs, then, can be seen as part of a broader attempt to cut families out of running the program. Parents and communities, Zigler insists, "no longer have a voice, and this letter shows that if they speak out, their voice is stifled."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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