Remarks at the National Head Start Association's 10th Annual Luncheon

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Remarks at the National Head Start Association's 10th Annual Luncheon  (2000) 
by Christopher Dodd
Delivered on 28 April 2000.

It is a pleasure to be with you all today as you wrap up this very successful week-long meeting of the National Head Start Association.

There are few federal programs like Head Start. Since its creation in 1965, this marvelous program has provided comprehensive education, health, social and nutritional services to over 17 million young children and their families. Today over 880,000 children are involved in Head Start, benefitting from the commitment of nearly 170,000 staff people and just over 2,000 Head Start agencies nationwide.

But it is unfair to characterize Head Start as just another federal program. It is so much more than that. It is a community organized around the principle that we must together take care of our young children. It is not only the right thing to do - it is what we must do as much for their futures as for our own.

Head Start brings together parents, teachers and others in the community to support young children and meet their needs. Sometimes that means health screenings and eye glasses; other times it means linking a parent up with job training services. It means constructive learning and play, care giving and nutrition.

The actions are diverse but the effects are the same - enriching and improving the child's life. And this is what each day is about in the thousands of Head Start programs across the country. It is the work you do each day and the work you do so well.

And it works. Study after study has shown that Head Start kids start school ready to learn, Head Start kids are more likely to stay out of special education, stay on grade and graduate. We know that for every one dollar invested in high quality early childhood education, like Head Start, seven dollars are saved in costs associated with special education and truancy.

There is clearly much to celebrate in the 35 years of Head Start. But birthdays are also a good time for reflection on not just what has been accomplished already, but what remains ahead of us to be done. That is the challenge before all of you and before the Congress as well.

In my view, Head Start has one major shortcoming - it is too small. Too many needy children are unserved or under-served. There is no question we have made progress on this issue in recent years — Head Start has grown and grown exponentially. President Clinton, who has been one of this program's best friends ever, sent up a budget this year requesting the largest increase in Head Start ever - $1 billion. This will bring total funding to $6.3 billion and bring us closer to the goal of serving 1 million children in Head Start and expanding Early Head Start to serve more infants and toddlers. It is estimated that this level of funding will expand Head Start services to 70,000 more children - a total of 950,000 children.

This is a lot of needy children - but unfortunately, it is still only half of those eligible and in need of Head Start. We need to do more. We need to fully-fund Head Start.

And if we cannot do this now, when federal surpluses are projected in the hundreds of billions of dollars, when we will ever be able to accomplish this goal?

What better time to invest in our children than now at the beginning of a new millennium and at a time when we actually have the resources to look to the long term and fund those programs that will fuel our future like Head Start?

There is no question this will be expensive. But leaving this undone will cost a great deal more over the long term. The costs will mount as we pay more for remedial education, more for welfare, more for prisons, and pay in terms of incredible lost potential.

As clear as these arguments may seem to us, however, this is an uphill fight in Congress. While Head Start has many friends on both sides of the aisle, there are still many who question spending more dollars on needy children and their families. Frankly, we know that was what welfare reform was about and what the continued moves to pare back other spending on families is about - whether it be in cuts to the Social Services Block grant that we saw proposed last year or in plans to "reform" education programs right into non-existence.

Our opponents hide behind popular good government buzz words - words like consolidation, flexibility and block grants to states. Too often these laudable sounding goals are simply rhetorical devices masking efforts to pare back federal leadership in areas critical to needy children and families.

So what do we do? We must continue to push toward full funding, while we make sure our own house is in good order.

Head Start must grow, but it must improve as well. In 1998, I was pleased to be one of the leaders in the reauthorization of the Head Start program. Frankly, with the record of this Republican Congress, we were a little worried going into it. But working together with you and with members committed to this program from both the House and Senate and from Democratic and Republican ranks, we were able to pass a strong reauthorization bill that set Head Start on a strong footing.

As you know, we spent a good deal of time on issues of quality, staff training, school readiness and program improvement. These were major steps and you all know that it will take a major effort on your part to reach these goals. And yet, these were changes that the Head Start community was open to and, indeed, eager for. You have never been simply accepting that the status quo is good enough for our children - like us, you want to serve children and their families better and are willing to set high goals for your individual programs and for Head Start as a whole. That's why there have been over 8,000 participants in this week's training sessions and workshops.

And Head Start continues to improve in other ways. Partnerships between local Head Start, child care and preschool are flourishing on the local level to further the goal of providing working parents with access to full-day, full-year high quality care. This innovation is critical — With welfare reform, Head Start parents are working parents and must be served accordingly.

Early Head Start continues to grow and meet the needs of babies and toddlers. We all know from the recent findings on brain development how critical these years are and the importance of serving very young children and their families.

This continual improvement in Head Start lays the groundwork for full funding as well as for meeting the challenges ahead. And there will be challenges.

Governor Bush has already proposed the "reform" of Head Start; he wants to move it to the Department of Education. There is no question Head Start is about success in school and in life, but I would argue it does not need this "reform." It undermines the comprehensive approach of Head Start, which is not just an education program. In addition, given Governor Bush's plans for education, which generally come down to block granting programs to Governors, this is no place for Head Start. Particularly, when we all know there are other Governors eager for these Head Start dollars.

We must also look beyond Head Start at ways to strengthen and support families.

We have worked closely together on my efforts to increase funding for the Child Care and Development Block grant which assists needy working parents get access to quality child care. These dollars are helping to build a better infrastructure for all children as well as Head Start children. I am hopeful that this will finally be the year that we will see that additional $800 million dollars. Just this morning, I was down at the White House with the First Lady and Fight Crime Invest in Kids, who you are honoring here today, releasing a new report on the importance of quality child care in intervening early with at risk kids and promoting this increased funding for the CCDBG.

We are also working to address the very first child care issue parents face - caring for their newborn baby - through more comprehensive support for new parents with paid leave.

There is no question that the Family and Medical Leave Act has provided a lifeline to families in offering guaranteed unpaid leave to families with new or sick children. But too many low-income families cannot take advantage of this policy because it is unpaid.

I have been working with the Clinton Administration that has now put forward a policy that would allow states to offer new parents unemployment insurance benefits during leaves they take to be with a new baby. This first important step toward paid leave has not been without opponents - but the idea is powerful and in state legislatures across the country these plans are moving forward. I believe we at the federal level should also kick in some of our own resources to support these efforts and will be fighting in Congress to make that happen.

We clearly have a full agenda before us in a Congress that pays scant attention to the needs of children. However, that has never stopped us before.

35 years ago, Project Head Start was a major experiment - full of promise and vision and hope. Today, looking back, we can see how that promise has been fulfilled in thousands, indeed millions, of families that have been transformed through Head Start. But looking forward, we can also see how much more of that promise remains still unfulfilled. So there is our challenge, let's get to it.

Thank you.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).