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'Let them read books'

Dubya's attack on Head Start



In another stirring example of noblesse oblige by the Bush family, the first lady recently read to a group of preschoolers in a Head Start program for migrant workers in North Carolina.

Unfortunately, Laura Bush couldn't find the time to visit the kids' actual classroom because she was on her much-more-important way to a $1,000-per-person fundraising luncheon for her husband. So a makeshift classroom was created in a maintenance building at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and the eight adorable little paupers were bused in for storytelling and use as political pawns.

Before she hurried off to a luncheon that raised $300,000, Laura -- her arm draped around a beaming child -- campaigned for her husband's plan to reorganize Head Start, the 38-year-old program that has helped more than 20 million preschool children of poor families. Bush's plan, which was due action in Congress at this writing, is yet another example of his fondness for progressive rhetoric that obscures his actual agendas. The "compassionate conservative" who "would leave no child behind" wants basically to disassemble Head Start.

Under Dubya's plan, Head Start would be converted from a federal to a state operation, so the program can be geared more specifically to each state's public school program. On the surface, this sounds appealing -- especially to those folks for whom the expression "states rights" induces a kind of nodding trance. Never mind that this will add another level of bureaucracy and actually increase the administrative cost of the program.

But while it empowers the states, it disempowers the actual communities the program serves. Head Start is unique among federal programs in that its funding goes directly to local community organizations that report to the Department of Health and Human Services. Far from empowering people at the local level, the Bush plan will do just the opposite: It will mire them in the politics of their cash-strapped state governors.

More important -- and the reason our librarian-in-chief staged her tableau vivant at the airport -- Bush's plan undermines the philosophy that has guided Head Start. He basically wants to turn it into a literacy program. All our well- educated president would have to do is consult any of dozens of studies that show how successful Head Start has been because it addresses the needs of the whole child -- nutrition, social skills and medical and dental health, as well as literacy. The idea is that a child who doesn't get a decent meal and glasses if he needs them, can't learn. Of all the programs meant to help the poor, Head Start has the most demonstrable level of real success.

I know this personally. I was a volunteer in the program the summer after my junior year in high school. Having grown up in the so-called Golden Ghetto, I drove every morning that summer to English Avenue in downtown Atlanta to volunteer as a teacher's aide.

I often wonder if people who are so quick to disparage programs like Head Start have really ever put a foot in the world of the extremely poor. Even to my 16-year-old eyes, it was obvious that the more impoverished a child's family was, the more difficulty the child had learning and functioning socially. We live in a society that is becoming increasingly classist. We dismiss the condition of the poor as a failure of ambition and drive. Then we deprive them of the help to give them hope and skills to create ambition and drive. Meanwhile, we happily grant the rich welfare in the form of deficit-causing tax cuts.

I put faces on these concerns: JT, Tammy, Efrem. Decades after I held their 4-year-old bodies in my arms, I am still haunted by their fates -- the memory of their lives. Apartments empty of comfort. Parents, often single, who loved their children but who had to spend every moment trying to make a dollar. If you actually step into the world of the poor, you quickly learn what a cruel myth it is that most don't work.

I know Head Start works. Almost 20 years after I volunteered in that program, I received a call from one of the kids, Efrem, who saw my name on a magazine story I'd written. It was not a good time in my life, so it was a huge gift to me when he showed up to thank me for taking him under my wing 20 years earlier. He was a medical student at the time, and I assume he is somewhere practicing now -- giving back to the world as a physician.

This story is not unique. It is well documented among the 20 million Head Start participants that they do better than their peers who didn't have the advantage of the program. Further, many return to their communities -- often to Head Start itself -- to consciously repay the help they received.

But all of that, if Mr. Bush has his way, will come to an end. He stands at the window of his ranch, looking down on the hungry poor. "Let them read books," he proclaims.

Cliff Bostock's website is

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