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Hatch Act Warning Spurs Accusations of Intimidation From Head Start Lobbying Group

A Health and Human Services Department missive to Head Start programs warning of possible violations of the Hatch Act has an advocacy group accusing the federal government of “scare tactics.”

Ron Herndon, chairman of the National Head Start Association, a nonprofit lobby of parents, said Wednesday the warning “sends a message that low-income parents don’t have a right to inform Congress about something that’s going to adversely affect children and families,” adding the missive is an unprecedented “scare tactic.”

Windy Hill, associate commissioner of the federal Head Start Bureau, which oversees Head Start grants, said Wednesday that her warning was a clarification of existing rules. “Employees of Head Start who are being funded and on the clock during Head Start time may not participate in political activities.”

The Hatch Act prohibits federal funds from being directed toward political activity.

At issue is a March 2003 NHSA “Government Affairs newsletter” that urges parents to contact Members of Congress if they disagree with the proposed changes. Hill said Wednesday the newsletter was sent electronically by the NHSA to local Head Start programs.

“The intent of the Hatch Act is to ensure that we are free of political activity in delivering services that are supported by those federal dollars,” Hill said, adding that the timing of her warning coincided with “a need for clarification.”

Sarah Greene, the National Head Start Association president, said her organization is not political: “We do not participate in any kind of partisan type of politics, that isn’t something that we do.” Herndon said the Hatch Act warning is an attempt to stifle debate, calling Hill’s timing “curious,” as a House bill to reauthorize the Head Start program for another five years was officially introduced last week.

Following Bush administration plans, the School Readiness Act of 2003 seeks to make states responsible for the low-income children literacy and health program.

Greene said Wednesday the warning is perceived as intimidation. She made public Hill’s original warning sent to Head Start programs and a letter the NHSA sent in response.

The NHSA sends weekly legislative updates meant for distribution to Head Start parents, she explained, adding, “We have been doing this 38 years and certainly know the rules and regulations and believe in staying within those.”

Herndon, too, said the Hatch Act is meant to prohibit partisan involvement, but not involvement in policy. “This administration has apparently chosen to make rules on the fly,” he said.