When President Obama announced a change in policy for early childhood education programs Tuesday, the response was typical. He chided Congress for being stagnant, and members of Congress shot back that he's too cynical.
But in spite of the verbal animosity on both sides, this particular issue appears to be one of the few bipartisan efforts in Washington today -- and Tuesday's announcement was encouraging to education reformers on both sides of the aisle.
The President declared Tuesday in Yeadon, Pennsylvania that Head Start programs -- federally funded pre-kindergarten schooling for children in low-income households -- would now only have their funding renewed if they lived up to certain elevated standards, reports the New York Times.
According to the Huffington Post, Head Start was born in 1965 as one aspect of the war on poverty. In 2010, it served about 900,000 low-income children yearly and cost about $7 billion.
The Head Start programs performing poorly will be required to re-compete for their funding, theoretically elevating accountability and by extension performance. Maggie Severns at Salon.com reports that according to the Department of Health and Human Services, about one-third of Head Start programs across the country will now be reapplying for grants.
"We're not just gonna put money into programs that don't work," Obama said, according to the Washington Post. "We're going to take that money and put them in programs that do."
Obama also couched his announcement as another move in his "We Can't Wait" (for Congress) message, reports the Los Angeles Times. Obama said that while he wanted to work with Congress, he would no longer wait for their consensus before taking action via executive authority.
In fact, the legislation to reform Head Start programs has been approved and in place since 2007.
Members of Congress were quick to point this out. A press release from the Education and the Work Force Committee quoted Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minnesota), who said the announcement was a way for the President to "repackage" an existing bipartisan agreement as a strategic move for re-election points.
The polemical angle on both sides did not, however, indicate a lack of consensus. According to Salon.com, the original Head Start reauthorization act had widespread approval from Democrats and Republicans alike. Both parties aimed to make the program more effective and more efficient. And educators see Tuesday's move as a small step in the right direction.
Sara Mead, writing for Education Week, said "Opening up the lowest performing grants to recompetition is an important step in improving quality and outcomes in Head Start programs--and the returns on significant federal investments in them."
The Huffington Post reports that William Gormley, co-director of Georgetown University's Center for Research on Children in the United States, agrees that with a higher level of accountability, Head Start could be a legitimate force in propelling children who are already at a disadvantage early in life onto the right path.
A study released earlier this year indicated that the progress made by children thanks to Head Start programs tends to disappear after about the first grade. Educators are hopeful that the new funding policy will change that.
Said Gormley to the Huffington Post, "Head Start has the potential to narrow the achievement gap between black and white students, hispanic and white students, between middle-class and disadvantaged students. That potential will only be realized if we improve the performance of the weaker Head Start agencies -- and, if necessary, turn to other grantees to take their place."