Abbott goes head to head with Head Start in gov run, says Texas can do pre-K better

By Matthew Waller
AUSTIN — Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is attacking the Head Start program in his Republican gubernatorial run and saying that Texas can do a better job.

Head Start is a federal program to help children from birth to 5 years old in low-income families with issues such as education, social and emotional development, and physical development.

Abbott, who has built a reputation for suing the federal government, said that Head Start largely has been a failure, and he wants to get more children enrolled into state-supported preschool.

“Recommendation: Given the established deficiencies in the Head Start program, develop a strategic plan to encourage parents of eligible 4-year-old children to enroll their children in state-based prekindergarten programs, rather than Head Start,” reads part of the early education policy platform Abbott rolled out this week.

According to the U.S. House Budget Committee Majority Staff March 3 report “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” Head Start “has little to no impact on the cognitive and social-emotional skills, parenting, or health status.” Any impact the program might have fades by the time the student completed first grade, according to the report.

The report states the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ research has demonstrated the Head Start program fails to prepare children for school.

Head Start had about 91,000 children enrolled in Texas in 2012. To recruit all of the 43,300 4-year-olds who would attend in the future, the cost could be $158 million, Abbott’s policy plan states.

Most Head Start-eligible children are also eligible for state-funded pre-K, according to the plan.

Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer for the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, slammed Abbott over remarks that expanding unreformed prekindergarten access in Texas would be a “waste” at a news conference in Austin. Malfaro said “full-day pre-K is the real gold standard,” although he didn’t want Head Start and prekindergarten to seem at odds.

“To our mind it’s not either or,” Malfaro said, but an overall supplementation.

In some cases, a teacher might have an aid that comes from Head Start.

“It’s a false dichotomy to have kids in preschool over here and Head start over here,” Malfaro said. “Don’t throw the Head Start baby out with the bath water.”

The campaign of Abbott’s gubernatorial opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, touted Davis’ own plan in response, saying Abbott’s is exclusionary.

“Greg Abbott wants to pick and choose which kids get access to an early education and called it a ‘waste,’” Davis campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña said in a statement. “Wendy Davis presented a plan to ensure that every eligible Texas child has access to high-quality, full-day pre-K.”

Abbott’s campaign said Davis’ plans have “substantive deficiencies and complete lack of fiscal responsibility.”

Full day pre-K could cost about $750 million to be paid with “existing resources,” Acuña said.

Leadership with a conservative think tank believes the proposal does good, but that it could be better.

“What this proposal is showing is the utter failure of the Head Start program,” said Chuck DeVore, the vice president of policy for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

He said his foundation would like policy to go even further and do more to advocate for charter schools to give students and parents more options.

“What we would advocate as a foundation is a greater proliferation of charter schools and more use of innovative teaching methods, more choices for parents and students,” DeVore said.

W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said that Head Start has improved in quality over the past decade, and he has written that the Head Start picture isn’t entirely dire.

Whether or not sending more kids from Head Start to pre-K is a good idea, however, “depends how good your state pre-K is,” Barnett said.

If the state is sends students to high quality pre-K and gets the same amount of federal money to go toward the 3-year-olds in Head Start, “there is no downside to that,” Barnett said.

The policy doesn’t outline whether more federal money should go to helping 3-year-olds.

Reprinted with permission from the San Angelo Standard-Times.

 
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