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Bush Proposes $600-Million Hike in Head Start Program

January 22, 1992|DOUGLAS JEHL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CATONSVILLE, Md. — President Bush showed off the gentler side of his election-year agenda Tuesday, calling for an unprecedented expansion of the Head Start program as part of a larger package aimed at the nation's children.

The proposed $600-million increase in funding for the program for disadvantaged preschoolers adds 27% to the Head Start budget and would open its doors to four out of every five 4-year-olds whose families are below the poverty line.

If approved, the new surge in spending would mean that the budget for Head Start would have more than doubled during the Bush presidency. It is expected to be the single largest increase in the federal budget that Bush will send to Congress next week.

But a senior Administration official said that it would be complemented by substantial increases in spending on other programs for children, including those providing school lunches, immunization and other assistance to poor families.

For his part, Bush preempted next Tuesday's State of the Union address to give added prominence to the proposal, unveiling the plan during a quickly organized event designed to underscore his concern for domestic issues at a time when he is under pressure to respond to problems at home.

And in an opening scene from what promises to become his campaign repertoire, Bush used his tour of a Head Start center here to play a starring role in a drama that his political advisers might call "Family."

Dressed in a business suit, Bush crawled on his hands and knees into a wooden playhouse full of preschoolers and picked up a toy telephone to announce to one bewildered 4-year-old: "I'll pretend I'm your mummy."

"Hello, hello. . . . Who is speaking please?" Bush squeaked in a cracked falsetto, sounding for all the world like the wolf playing the part of Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother. "Oh, my boy! How are you? How's it going at school today?"

As cameras also recorded Bush joining children in a song of "Friends, Friends, One, Two, Three," it was clear that his reelection campaign leaders are eager to see the President cast in the part of a kindly grandfather.

"Many children need a Head Start, and we're going to make sure they get it," Bush said after touring two classrooms at a well-worn center in this Baltimore suburb. He insisted that the program was "beyond politics."

White House officials were nevertheless quick to stress that the new Bush commitment would fulfill his 1988 campaign promise to provide a year of Head Start to all who want to enroll. While the new funding would provide for just 80% of the eligible population, the remaining 20% has shown that it does not want to take part, they said.

And Democrats, seeking to maintain a dominant presence in debate about a program in which their party has played the leading role, immediately called the Bush proposal inadequate.

"America's children need more than an election-year handout," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the sponsor of Democratic legislation that would up the White House ante by increasing the Head Start budget by $5 billion over the next five years.

The difference between the two approaches reflects disagreement over how wide the program's reach should be. While Head Start was conceived to serve 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, the Administration argues that it works best as a one-year program for 4-year-olds.

In an interview Tuesday, Wade Horn, the U.S. commissioner for children, youth and families, said that the emergence of state-run kindergartens has eliminated the need for the program to serve older children, while new evidence shows that children do not benefit more from two years of Head Start than from one.

But Head Start provides health, medical and nutritional services that most preschools and kindergartens do not, and Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail contended Tuesday that a year of special care is not enough for the nation's 2 million 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds who live in poverty.

About 622,000 youngsters are now enrolled in Head Start, and 95% of them come from families living in poverty. The White House said that the new proposal, which would boost the program's budget to $2.8 billion for fiscal 1993, would increase enrollment to 779,000.

The program is aimed at those families whose incomes fall below the poverty line, now set at $13,359 a year for a family of four. But its guidelines permit enrollment by small numbers of children whose families are somewhat better off.

In part for that reason, the wrangling over Head Start reflects less a battle over answers to poverty than the stock both political parties have put in family and child-care issues. Head Start has become perhaps the least controversial of federal social programs, with both parties determined to take credit for its benefits.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a Democratic presidential candidate, said that Bush's record is "less than sterling. . . . Congress has led the way on Head Start funding, and the Administration has followed."

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