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Fresh Start for Head Start

Since 1965, the federal Head Start program has helped preschoolers in poor and at-risk families get an educational leg up. Originally part of President Johnson's War on Poverty, Head Start now has a yearly budget of nearly $7 billion, and it assists nearly 1 million children.

Yet it reaches only about half of the kids it should, according to studies. And Head Start children still enter school with lower math and verbal skills than more-affluent pupils, and continue to lag throughout their school years.

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Based on that reasoning, the Bush administration argues that states can better determine how best to help needy kids and hold local Head Start programs more accountable, using federal block grants.

A GOP bill in Congress, sponsored by Rep. Mike Castle (R) of Delaware, extends the Head Start program five years and adds $203 million more than the current funding for next year. Further, qualifying states can coordinate Head Start programs with their own early-childhood programs if they promise not to cut their own funding for early childhood education. The bill also sets higher standards for measuring Head Start teachers and what they teach than what's required now. All Head Start teachers will need at least a bachelor's degree by 2008.

These are welcome improvements that allow states to experiment with new ideas and stand to strengthen Head Start.

But opponents, many of whom have a stake in the current federal way of running Head Start, charge the bill would lead to a dismantling of the program. They doubt many of the states' ability to maintain the service. The National Head Start Association has even filed a lawsuit claiming the administration used "scare tactics" to stifle criticism of the proposed overhaul by Head Start providers.

Such outcry is overblown, although it has caused Representative Castle to amend his bill. Under the new version, only eight states would initially qualify to carry on Head Start on their own.

Such a limited pilot should prove a useful experiment to find better ways to make Head Start work better. At the least, it can show how a better coordinated effort to help at-risk kids can eliminate the patchwork approach too prevalent today.