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A Reagan promise and Head Start

Surely President Reagan will not renege on his promise made earlier this year that the Head Start program - which provides special instruction for some 374, 000 inner-city and other disadvantaged preschool children - would remain inviolate from the federal budget cutters' ax as part of his federal ''safety net'' of seven programs serving the ''truly needy.'' In his address to Congress on Feb. 18 Mr. Reagan said that ''there will be no cut in Project Head Start. . . .''

Well, the safety net is still in place, but it is showing some tatters. Mr. Reagan proposed $950 million in funds for Head Start for fiscal year 1982. Congress reduced that amount to $912 million. Now, it is reported, the Office of Management and Budget is proposing that the program be slashed back to $780 million for fiscal year 1983. Equally serious, the OMB would merge funds for the program into a community services block-grant program over the course of four years. That poses the danger of Head Start being scuttled at the state level by conservatives who have never reconciled themselves to the program.

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Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweiker, to his credit, is fighting the proposed changes. Mr. Schweiker is right. That is not to say that many of the criticisms made about Head Start over the years have not had validity, such as the claim that children who have been in the program do not test out any better at later ages than children who have not been in the program. But that misses the point: the program provides an early foundation for children who often lack access to even minimal exposure to family and cultural attitudes that prepare one for a successful school experience.

To destroy a program like Head Start - perhaps the most durable of all of the original Great Society programs - shows an insensitivity of the highest order.

Most federal officials, like David Stockman who heads up OMB, have not begun with the disadvantages of the typical child for whom Head Start is intended. Many of these officials were fortunate in that they came from solid, middle-class families that respected literacy and education. What about the low-income child, black or white, who comes from a setting where schooling, and culture, and words, are not put at a premium? Surely society must not ignore these children.

Throughout his public career Mr. Reagan has been known as a man who keeps his promises. The President should do that with Head Start. To sacrifice it now would be a terrible disservice to the nation, as well as the thousands of young children that have been - and could yet be - served by the program.

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