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DELEGATE: HEAD START PROGRAM IN JEOPARDY

June 19, 2003 – A Bush administration proposal that would radically reconfigure the federal Head Start program has not found favor with the Congressional Black Caucus, according to Delegate Donna M. Christensen.
The proposed legislation that would reauthorize Head Start also would change it into a block grant program with a narrow focus that eliminates some of the help that poor children receive under the current program, Christensen said.
Proponents have touted the bill as one that would improve the school readiness of disadvantaged children, she said, but in actuality it would hurt the very people it is intended to serve.
Christensen said in a release that giving states and territories control over the program would threaten the quality of education provided to children by eliminating the current extensive federal performance standards in place. "The federal standards create an early equality of opportunity for children who would otherwise spend a considerable portion of their formative years catching up," she said.
Eliminating those standards will subject children to disparities in educational quality, she said, adding that the most troubling aspect of the bill is that it places Head Start under state control during trying economic times. She pointed to the Virgin Islands' current "fiscal crisis" as an example.
"In my district, the government predicts a deficit of over $150 million," she told her Congressional Black Caucus colleagues. "States and territories would be tempted to use Head Start dollars to fill gaps in their own programs and spread dollars more thinly."
Christensen said the unfunded mandates of the Bush administration's Leave No Child Behind Act also will put pressure on localities to underfund their commitment to early childhood education.
Nationally, the Head Start program has given more than 20 million children a chance to succeed in school by providing high-quality, comprehensive pre-school services to the nation's poorest children and families, the release stated. Currently, about 13 percent of V.I. children under 5 years of age are eligible for the program.
Last month, the Human Services Department released the findings of a community- and self-assessment study that reflect the Head Start program's strengths and weaknesses. According to department officials, the program has an enrollment of 1,113 children — 78 percent of eligible V.I. youngsters.
The study found that 62 percent of Head Start parents are employed full-time, but 82 percent of those employees have a family income of $15,000 or below. And it found that 47 percent of Head Start families have no insurance.
According to the self-assessment, the major strengths of the Head Start program include the respect shown children, parents and staff by employees and others involved in the program; evident teamwork; a knowledgeable and active Policy Council; and partnerships with the community and government agencies.
Christensen said she is encouraged that scrutiny of the program reauthorization has begun very early. "Since we are still in the early stages, there is still an opportunity to address these issues," she said.

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