Expand Support for Head Start - Pasadena Star-News

ONE of the best ways to give a low-income child a jump start in life is through the federal Head Start program.

Head Start provides some of the nation's most impoverished children with essential skills to get them ready for kindergarten, such as being able to count to 10, recite the alphabet, and recognize shapes and colors.

Unfortunately, Head Start has been chronically shortchanged.

For the past six years, funding has lagged below the rate of inflation - resulting in an 11 percent real cut to programs.

That's why some Head Start centers have been forced to cut back on school hours, reduce staff and slash transportation services for students.

In addition, less than half of eligible preschool-age children in California are enrolled in preschool, in part, because parents don't have the money to pay for it.

We must reverse this harmful trend.

After years of cuts and flat funding, President Bush has proposed a slight two-percent increase in funding for Head Start in next year's federal budget. But Congress needs to provide more.

The increase won't cover one year of cost-of-living expenses for Head Start centers. It's not enough to restore six years of budget cuts and flat funding and pay for the program's new requirements - including expanding the numbers of eligible children and increasing teacher education standards.

These new requirements will improve Head Start. But unless they are adequately funded, Head Start centers across the nation will shoulder further financial burden.

Without additional funding, California Head Start centers would be forced to cut thousands of children from their attendance rolls and would have to choose between lowering program standards and closing more than 88classrooms.

This is unacceptable. It's unfair to these children who desperately need this schooling.

Take the case of Jenny, a four year-old preschooler from Orange County.

Jenny was quiet and withdrawn when she first went to Head Start. Her family was homeless, and without stable housing it was difficult for Jenny and her siblings to make and maintain friends.

Jenny was in Head Start for several months. She had her health screened by program nurses, who determined that she was underweight. Jenny was assigned to a nutritionist and a mental health specialist who worked with her family. She began to open up to her young peers and to teachers, who recalled that Jenny was imaginative and loved to play house.

During her time at Head Start, Jenny was assessed twice. Tests showed that the little girl made gains in everything from reading and math to emotional and physical development.

But Jenny's family was forced to move across town. Jenny had no way to get to Head Start and had to drop out of the program. This is a personal tragedy for Jenny and her family. Unfortunately, Jenny is not alone.

Many of our nation's children enter elementary school without the basic skills necessary to succeed. We know that low-income children disproportionately start school behind their peers - they are less likely to be able to count to 10 or to recite the alphabet.

By the spring of their kindergarten year, Head Start graduates are able to meet national standards in reading and writing.

It's clear that Head Start sets a strong foundation for a lifetime of learning. We need to make sure this important program continues to stay strong. So in addition to increasing funding, we must also offer incentives to attract the best and the brightest to be Head Start teachers.

Many Head Start programs across the country, including in California, are losing qualified teachers to local school districts, in part, because the pay is better. Low pay, combined with rising student debt, makes it increasingly difficult to attract and retain highly qualified Head Start teachers.

Recently enacted comprehensive higher education law forgives federal student loans for individuals who have served in public service for 10 years. This law expands on a proposal that I have been working on for several years, and I am hopeful that it will encourage many more men and women to enter and remain in Head Start classrooms.

We must do all we can to ensure that Head Start continues to provide high quality programs to enhance the lives and help secure the futures of low-income children. They deserve it.