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Head Start Bill Likely to Face Only ‘Symbolic’ Opposition

Bipartisan support to reauthorize early childhood education funding may be tempered by an amendment to exclude religious institutions from federal hiring standards for teachers and other personnel, a Congressional source said.

The House Education and Labor Committee is scheduled to mark up the Improving Head Start Act of 2007 (H.R. 1429) on Wednesday. While Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) is confident that the bill will pass with few changes, one battle looms: the fight over whether religious institutions can use religion as a factor in hiring.

Republicans have been able to include the provision in previous attempts to reauthorize the program, but Democrats now have the numbers to defeat the proposal, the Miller aide said. The amendment “will certainly be defeated in committee,” the aide added.

The provision has emerged in previous sessions and is likely to be introduced during markup, a senior Miller aide said. That topic remains the “biggest” issue the bill is likely to face.

But the proposal is mostly a “symbolic” gesture to appease conservative Republicans, the aide alleged. Not only do the House Democratic Caucus and educational groups oppose the provision, but so do many religious groups, including participants in the Head Start program.

Committee ranking member Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) has not signed on to the bill.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a co-sponsor of the bill, did not return a call by press time. Castle is the ranking member on the subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary education.

The markup is scheduled for Wednesday. Miller expects the bill to move to the floor this spring.

Not only would the bill reauthorize the program, but it also would provide increased funding for teacher and staff salaries and professional development. Miller has previously criticized the Bush administration for its flat funding of the program.

Head Start is a national program that promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to enrolled children and families.

The Head Start program provides grants to local public and private nonprofit and for-profit agencies to provide comprehensive child development services to economically disadvantaged children and families. The bill was last reauthorized in 1998.

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