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Bush Gets Head Start on Key ’04 Issue

Democrats, fearing Republicans are making inroads into many of their bread-and- butter issues, are quickly trying to seize the high ground on education, beginning with the contentious debate over reforming Head Start.

House Democrats have been papering Capitol Hill with press releases condemning a Republican plan to change the popular program for weeks.

The issue is the latest to grab the spotlight in the inter-party tug-of-war for control of the domestic agenda in advance of the 2004 elections as President Bush continues to try to steal away issues that have traditionally been owned by Democrats.

Bush highlighted his initiative to overhaul Head Start in his State of the Union address and then stepped up the pressure on Democrats in recent weeks by delivering a major speech at a Landover, Md., elementary school.

Republicans boast that the bill authored by Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), which is expected to hit the House floor for a vote on Friday, will strengthen Head Start by bringing more accountability to the program.

But Democrats are vehemently opposed to a provision in the School Readiness Act that creates a five-year pilot program allowing eight states with a “significant and sustained commitment to early childhood education” to coordinate Head Start with existing pre-kindergarten programs.

They say it is tantamount to a block grant that cash-strapped states could divert to other programs.

Republicans counter that protections are built into the legislation that would prohibit states from plundering Head Start cash.

“I’m very concerned that House Republicans are bent on dismantling Head Start,” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said after the June 19 House committee vote. “They don’t like public schools. Now they don’t like Head Start.”

Bush directly countered that claim during his classroom visit, and Castle said in an interview that his bill’s biggest hurdle has been getting past the false information spread by Democrats.

The pilot program “by any definition whatsoever cannot be considered a block grant,” Castle said.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation from people who should know better,” he added.

Those words have done little to quell Democratic criticism.

“The administration … seeks to dismantle the program itself, allowing some states to block grant Head Start money with few requirements,” charged Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), ranking member of the Budget Committee. “States could cut off services to three-year-olds, shorten hours, increase class size, reduce education quality, eliminate health screening, and wipe out health and nutrition education, and still draw their block grants.”

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said he has no doubt Democrats will try to make political hay of the proposal, but he predicted that the attacks will ultimately fail.

“I think it will be hard for them to get traction on it,” DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy said. “This is a presidential priority, and he’s putting his weight behind it. We Republicans are pretty good at sticking together and winning on these issues.”

While condemning the bill in hopes of blocking its passage, Democrats say they have already made headway in watering down the legislation a bit.

“We’ve already beat them back,” claimed Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “It was supposed to be in all 50 states, now it’s just a pilot program.”

Because Head Start is particularly prevalent in minority communities, the CBC has been out front on this issue, with Cummings coordinating Special Order speeches on the issue with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last night. The black caucus also held its own hearing on Head Start, mounting floor protests and working over the Fourth of July recess to drum up voter support for their position.

“I definitely think this could hurt Republicans,” Cummings said of the politics of tinkering with a popular program. “It falls heavily on the conservative side, but there’s very little compassion.”

Republicans insist they’re not worried about any fallout on the issue. “The president has shown he can win when he talks about education,” said John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he believes the Democratic message will resonate with voters.

The debate over the future of Head Start is a “specific example of something everyone really understands.”

Democrats point out that the program currently serves about 1 million children, or only three out of every five eligible. If Republicans would just boost Head Start’s $6.8 billion budget by $3 billion annually, they could cover all qualified three- and four-year-olds, the National Head Start Association claims.

House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the Republican plan would bring early education to more poor children.

Right now, state and Head Start efforts are not coordinated so some classes are full while desks go empty in others, he said. Therefore, more kids can be covered if states and Head Start centers work with each other without any extra funding.

Showing how high the stakes are and because Friday’s vote is expected to be tight, bill supporters anticipate that the White House will become more directly involved in lobbying wavering Members, said one Representative, who did not want to be named.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is holding a hearing on the topic Thursday.

Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said that nothing has been decided yet and that he hopes to introduce a bipartisan bill that can be marked up in September before the August recess.

Senate Democrats will resist anything that looks like a block grant, said an aide for ranking committee member Kennedy.

Most likely, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) will introduce a competing bill to “lay down a marker,” the Kennedy aide added.

Brian Gallagher, president and CEO of United Way of America, is urging both parties to try to keep the rhetoric down.

“Let’s not turn this into a partisan issue,” said Gallagher, who recently led a “Success By 6” summit to help communities make progress on early childhood development issues and programs like Head Start.

“We have to find a way to de-politicize the debate on early childhood,” he said. “Why don’t we get focused on what’s not being achieved. Let’s make progress.”

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