NASET News Alert

School Readiness

May 26, 2006

School Readiness Act of 2005 (H.R. 2123)

House Education Committee Leaders Introduce Bill to Reform and Reauthorize Head Start Program

May, 2005--WASHINGTON, D.C. – House education committee leaders introduced legislation that would introduce greater competition into the federal Head Start early childhood program and use it to strengthen school readiness, increase the role of states and local communities in Head Start, and protect children and taxpayers against the abuse and mismanagement of federal Head Start funds. 

The bill, the School Readiness Act of 2005 (H.R. 2123), will strengthen the academic components of Head Start and remove barriers that hinder coordination between Head Start and successful state-run early childhood initiatives – major priorities for President George W. Bush.  The bill will reauthorize the Head Start program for five years.

The bill comes on the heels of a widely-publicized report by the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) that warned the financial control system in Head Start is flawed and failing to prevent multi-million dollar financial abuses that cheat poor children, taxpayers, and law-abiding Head Start operators.  The independent GAO report, released March 18, 2005 , found that financial management weaknesses in Head Start are resulting in diminished services for disadvantaged children, and recommended that the federal government take steps to “recompete grants that are currently awarded to poorly performing grantees.”

“This legislation will increase competition for Head Start grants, increase the role of states and local communities, and help to ensure federal Head Start funds are used for their intended purpose: preparing disadvantaged children for kindergarten,” said House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH).  “We want to make sure the many quality Head Start operators around the country are supported, and the bad apples are replaced with good ones worthy of the children they serve.”

“The goal of Head Start is to provide children a solid foundation that will prepare them for success in school and later in life, a goal we kept in mind while drafting the Act.  The legislation we introduced today emphasizes that every child, regardless of their economic status, should have the best chance possible to thrive.  We believe this legislation offers a variety of provisions that will help Head Start programs across the nation become exemplary programs with proven results in both helping students to learn and grow and in the administration of the programs.  I think what we have here is a program that we all can feel confident will achieve the goals it sets out to achieve,” said Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman, Mike Castle (R-DE).

IMPROVED STATE AND LOCAL COORDINATION IN ALL 50 STATES

“This bill takes a different approach to the state coordination issue than we took two years ago – an approach that will enable us to strengthen collaboration among Head Start and state and local early childhood initiatives in all 50 states,” Boehner noted, comparing the 2003 and 2005 versions of the School Readiness Act.  “I appreciate the input we’ve received this time from members on both sides of the aisle.  While important differences remain between Republicans and Democrats, I believe the dialogue has resulted in a better bill.”

MORE COMPETITION, MORE SAFEGUARDS AGAINST FINANCIAL ABUSE – AND NO NEW TESTING

Some highlights of the School Readiness Act of 2005 include:

More competition.  Local Head Start operators identified as having one deficiency or more during the five-year lives of their federal grants will be required to compete against other potential grantees when their grants come up for renewal.  Under current laws and regulations, such recompetition is too limited, the independent GAO has found.  The U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services, who oversees the Head Start program, will retain the right to terminate a Head Start grant at any time during the five-year grant cycle.  Grantees that meet all requirements will be designated as “priority” grantees.

Improved disclosure and transparency of Head Start.  The bill will require all Head Start grantees to make available to the public an annual report detailing how money was spent, the sources from which funds were received, and how the agency has performed in terms of meeting the requirements of the law.  An independent financial audit will also be required annually.

Greater role for states.  In order to qualify to receive a federal Head Start grant, organizations will be required to have objectives in place for improving school readiness that are aligned with state-developed K-12 academic content standards.  In order to be considered “priority” grantees, organizations entrusted with federal Head Start funds will be required to utilize curricula that are aligned with state-developed K-12 academic content standards and based in proven scientific research.  Grantees that fail to meet this standard will be required to compete with other potential grantees and will face the possibility of losing their federal grants.

Greater role for local school districts.  In order to be considered “priority” grantees, organizations entrusted with federal Head Start funds will be required to demonstrate active partnerships with local educational agencies (local school districts) serving the same communities to facilitate smooth transitions to kindergarten for their students.  Grantees that fail to meet this standard will be required to compete with other potential grantees and will face the possibility of losing their federal grants.    

Better safeguards against financial abuse.  Head Start operators will be required to meet a range of financial disclosure requirements as a condition of receiving and keeping their federal Head Start grants.  Grantees will have to be overseen by a local governance board that provides direction and actively oversees all program activities, and will be required to document that they have strong fiscal controls in place, including the employment of a well-qualified chief financial officer with a history of successful management of a public or private organization.  Grantees will also have to maintain administrative costs that do not exceed 15 percent of total program costs.   

Improved teacher quality.  In order to be considered “priority” grantees, organizations entrusted with federal Head Start funds will be required to have a teaching staff of at least 50 percent with AA degrees.  Grantees that fail to meet this standard will be required to compete with other potential grantees and will face the possibility of losing their federal grants.   The percentage of Head Start staff nationwide required to have BA degrees will be increased to 50 percent.

No new testing.  Like its 2003 counterpart, the School Readiness Act contains no new testing provisions.  The legislation will strengthen the academic components of Head Start without adding additional tests or assessments.

Improved school readiness.   The bill will emphasize “what works” in preparing disadvantaged children for school.  It will strengthen Head Start’s academic standards by emphasizing cognitive development and the results of scientifically-based research in topics critical to children’s school readiness (including language, pre-reading, pre-mathematics, and English language acquisition).  The changes would be similar to those adopted with strong bipartisan support for President Bush’s Reading First and Early Reading First initiatives, established in the No Child Left Behind Act for K-12 education.  

BOEHNER COMMITTED TO ADDING FAITH-BASED HIRING PROTECTIONS ON HOUSE FLOOR

Boehner also said he is committed to adding language to the bill that will ensure faith-based organizations can compete for federal Head Start grants without surrendering their constitutionally-protected right to take religion into account in their hiring practices.  Committee Republicans have fought to restore this right for faith-based organizations in other federal laws such as the Workforce Investment Act and are committed to doing the same in Head Start, Boehner said.

“The faith-based hiring issue is an incredibly important issue that deserves an affirmative debate on the House floor.  I look forward to that debate, and I look forward to winning,” Boehner said.

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