Only God Can Give You a Head Start
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland - July 3, 2003

The proposed legislation was later defeated in the Senate. - GW

Bush-backed bill would dismantle federal program for disadvantaged youth, shifting it to the states—and opening it up to faith-based discrimination.
Ms. Goldberg, I’m very sorry, but because you’re not a born-again Christian, Fire and Brimstone Ministries is terminating you as a teacher in the Head Start program. However, if you receive Jesus Christ into your life as your personal lord and savior, I’m sure we could reinstate you.”

Situations like this hypothetical one could become reality in several states if a bill before the House of Representatives, the School Readiness Act of 2003 (HR 2210), becomes law. The measure, which is backed by the Bush administration, would dismantle Head Start as a federal program providing disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds with educational and health-care services and shift it to the states in the form of block grants. The states could then combine their own preschool funding with the federal money. The White House contends the move will enable Head Start to better coordinate with state programs, but critics say provisions in the bill strip it of crucial civil-rights protections. As a result, participating religious organizations could fire teachers not belonging to their faith, and also forbid parents of children in the program from becoming volunteers on the same grounds. Current law bans hiring on the basis of religion in the program.

Responding by e-mail to a request for comment, Shin Inouye, legislative media liaison for the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “Head Start was created to ensure that teachers were put in classrooms; it was not about permitting government-funded religion. If this bill passes, we will see qualified teachers get fired, simply because they cannot pass federally sanctioned religious tests. Our elected representatives need to . . . dismiss this misguided attempt at government-funded religion.”

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, echoed Inouye in an e-mail, saying, “There is absolutely no reason for this administration to encourage religious discrimination in Head Start. Although Head Start is sometimes located at churches and sponsored by religious groups, it is not a religious program. It contains no religious content and is designed to serve children from various religious and philosophical backgrounds. Head Start does contain an income test—that is, it is designed for low-income families—but, as a government-funded program, it is not permitted to contain a religious test. The only qualifications Head Start teachers should be required to meet are related to education and professional ability. A qualified teacher should not be excluded from the program on the basis of an irrelevant point like religion. Allowing groups to discriminate in this manner does a disservice to children in need. It amounts to taxpayer-supported religious discrimination. It is simply wrong.”

Head Start has benefited approximately 20 million children since its inception in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Last year, its paid staff of 190,000 plus 145,000 volunteer teachers’ aides and chaperones served 900,000 children at 2,500 locations. In addition to its preschool programs, Head Start offers job training and opportunities to needy families. All this has made it a target for conservatives opposed to such federally managed programs.

The bill to overhaul Head Start, which is up for reauthorization, was sponsored by Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee. The Bush administration originally had wanted “religious hiring rights” for Head Start programs in all 50 states, but the subcommittee settled on a pilot program involving eight states. On June 19, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed it by a 27-20 vote along party lines. It now awaits a vote by the full House. Although Rep. Castle did not return calls requesting comment, CNN quoted him as saying, “Faith-based organizations cannot be expected to sustain their religious mission without the ability to employ individuals who . . . practice their faith, because it’s that faith that motivates them to serve.”

The National Head Start Association (NHSA), a private not-for-profit organization representing the program’s staff, volunteers, and the children it serves, also opposes the bill and has accused the White House of attempting to silence it with legal intimidation. According to the NSHA’s Web site (www.nhsa.org), the group received a letter in early May “from a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official warning all local Head Start staff and parents/volunteers of possible civil and criminal penalties” if they spoke out against the bill. In response, the NHSA filed a lawsuit on June 11 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia charging that the First Amendment rights of the parties threatened by the HHS letter had been violated. The suit says, in part, “Such a threat necessarily has a chilling impact on the non-profit Head Start community. Because of this, the Hill letter has made parents and staffs of non-profit Head Start grantees afraid to communicate their opinions concerning the proposed legislation, to Congress or elsewhere.”

 List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2003 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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