WASHINGTON – A brief passage in a 340-page Senate Appropriations Committee report represents a formal red flag raised over approximately $186 million a year that could be funding priority Head Start programs for the children of American Indians, migrant and seasonal workers and the disabled.
The Office of Head Start, a unit of the Administration for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Services, is the federal government’s lead educational program for children from birth to age 5; it focuses on preparing them for school. In the often remote locales of Native America, where corporate sponsorship of youth summer programs and such is scarce compared with urban settings, Head Start is considered a critical resource.
Under current law, Congress has set aside 13 percent of all Head Start funding for stated purposes in order of priority. Indian and other Head Start programs for specific populations, including migrant and seasonal workers, are the first priority listed in the law as it now stands. But according to advocates for Indian and migrant Head Start programs, HHS in recent years has transferred on the order of $186 million out of the 13 percent priority set-aside to other Head Start programs that should have been funded from the other 87 percent of the total Head Start budget.
That has meant that in recent years, the top priority Head Start set-aside program has received not 13 percent of Head Start funding but approximately 10.3 percent, while other programs received approximately 89.7 percent of funding instead of 87 percent. The difference amounts to approximately $186 million.
“That’s what we needed to fund these increases for Indian and migrant programs,” said Gregory Smith of Johnston & Associates, representing the National Indian Head Start Directors Association on legislative matters in Washington.
The association considers the transfer of funds illegal, a characterization rejected by the Office of Head Start. “I don’t see where we have strayed,” said Channel Wilkins, director of the Office of Head Start, explaining that the priority set-aside funding can also be allocated to lesser priorities, including discretionary uses.
The Committee on Education and the Workforce in the House of Representatives, according to testimony before it during the fiscal year 2007 federal budget process, also does not consider HHS decisions on Head Start priority funding illegal. But in language that straddles the line between pointed criticism and the spirit of inquiry, the Senate Appropriations Committee addressed the larger issue of funds to expand Native Head Start programs.
A paragraph in the Senate report on the appropriation proposed for Head Start in FY ’07 states that the priority set-aside funds “might not be achieving their full potential to serve American Indian/Alaska Native Head Start.” It requests “detailed information on the proposed and actual use of these funds” from the HHS secretary. It also suggests a use for the funds “by providing minor construction funding, as authorized, in remote Native American communities,” where they would “help serve” what the committee terms “the serious need for additional and expanded Head Start facilities among Native American populations and in rural areas.”
But the report does not have the force of law, and for Indian country to campaign in earnest on Capitol Hill against HHS would risk alienating lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives whose constituencies have benefited from the “discretionary” Head Start funding decisions of HHS, Smith said.
“Although Hill staff in both the Senate and the House have said this is outrageous – what can we do about it? If we were to change what they [HHS] have done, funding that has been diverted to other programs will have to be pulled back. And that means cutting programs in New York, L.A., San Francisco. … You make enemies of all these urban congressmen who have been benefiting, you know, you’ve got a big problem on your hands.”
Wilkins denied that Office of Head Start discretionary funding has favored urban Head Start programs.
“So what they’ve done is,” Smith continued, “on the House side, Republicans said, ‘Well, you know what, we’re going to give – we’re going to increase the set asides. We’re going to give the migrants 5 percent [of the 13 percent in Head Start priority set-aside funding], which is sort of up from 4 percent for them. And we’re going to give Indian Head Start 3.5 percent, which is up from 2.7, 2.8 a couple years ago. … And you know, let’s just make it work. But we’re – at the same time we’re going to do a study, and evaluate what should be the true [funding] levels.’“
A House bill to that effect has passed in that chamber. A similar bill has stalled in the Senate. In any case, the overall Head Start budget is “must-pass” legislation, meaning the Senate Appropriations Committee directives to HHS are likely to become recommendations of record.