By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When officials in Frederick County, Maryland voted last year to stop paying for the local Head Start preschool program, they pointed to a nearly $12 million projected budget shortfall as proof that the mostly rural county could no longer afford it.
But some parents, supporters and others saw politics at play, especially as two county commissioners who supported relinquishing the program emphasized the need for strong marriages and the fact that their own wives stayed home to care for their children.
A year later, the school readiness program less than 50 miles from the nation's capital survives, but with wounds. After the county withdrew funding, 20 children lost spots, and half of the 80 staffers left while those remaining saw a 20 percent pay cut, according to federal officials who later took over the center.
Head Start faces more performance pressure than ever before as federal and local budget woes escalate. Republican presidential candidates and other conservatives have condemned the program as expensive glorified day care. Some do not just want reforms - they want to abolish it.
But Head Start also has a wide bipartisan support base, and advocates fiercely oppose any scaled-back proposals. They say the program gives children a better chance at success and provides critical family support.
Head Start's supporters hope that a new effort by the Obama administration to crack down on bad Head Start providers will not only save the program but serve as a model for how government can improve its services for the poor.
Questions about the program's effectiveness have reverberated throughout its long history, with numerous studies over the years offering contradictory findings.
"There are an increasing number of people who are realizing that Head Start is not delivering on its promise, that it's not delivering hundreds of thousands of kids who are ready for school," said Ron Haskins, a senior Brookings Institution fellow and co-director of the think tank's Center on Children and Families.
"We know that the model can work. We know that preschool programs can work," he said. "It's a matter of getting Head Start to start to work better."
MORE NEEDY KIDS, FUNDING WORRIES
With an $8 billion federal price tag, Head Start is a joint federal and local program that serves about 965,000 children nationwide. Created in 1965, the program promotes early reading, math and development skills before children enroll in elementary school. Most Head Start centers are run by contractors and agencies who bid for the work.
Its enrollment represents just 5 percent of the infants and toddlers and half of preschoolers who are poor enough to qualify, according to federal officials.
Head Start is in better shape financially than it has been in years. It got a $2.1 billion boost in 2009 and has seen modest annual increases since then. Grantees pay for 20 percent of the costs.
In Frederick - a largely Republican county in mostly Democratic state - the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which oversees Head Start, took over. And although county officials withdrew $250,000 in funds, it still provides classroom and office space, and other support.
Yasmina Vinci, head of the National Head Start Association, said that most localities and even both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have supported the program because they can see the impact it has directly on families, especially single mothers, in need.
"The county, for political reasons, they didn't want to do that," said Vinci, whose group represents Head Start centers, staff, parents and alumni.
Administrators in other areas, including one near Plaquemine, Louisiana, also have cut ties with Head Start or discussed doing so. Another nonprofit agency that oversaw Head Start in Pinellas County, Florida told HHS last year that it was giving up program control because of funding concerns.
The issue has surfaced in the Republican presidential race as part of a broader criticism of federal education policies. The most specific criticism has come from Rick Santorum, a social conservative, who argues that Head Start is ineffective and that more should be done to enable parents to stay at home with children.
Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have called for education cuts that could affect Head Start but have not singled it out. Gingrich's daughter was in the program in the late 1960s, according to his spokesman.
And in January, U.S. Representative Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate with libertarian views, decried Head Start as unconstitutional but stopped short of proposing immediate cuts.
"Right now, there's a lot of traction for re-examining the federal preschool programs," including Head Start, said Lindsey Burke, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation who focuses on education issues.
Head Start advocates say proposed funding cuts - and calls for stay-at-home parents - make no sense because welfare reforms enacted in the 1990s require low-income people to work.
And more children now live in poverty. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, nearly 16 million children in the United States, or 21.6 percent, are poor.
"We're maintaining kids, but we're not really gaining ground on reaching eligible children," said Hannah Matthews, director of the Child Care and Early Education team at CLASP, a policy group focused on low-income people.
After years of bipartisan support, House of Representatives Republicans last year initially sought a $1.08 billion program cut before the effort failed.
For 2013 Obama has sought an $85 million program increase, bringing its total to $8.05 billion. That number would sustain current enrollment but offer no new slots.
House Republicans have yet to release their spending plan for next year, but even without it automatic spending cuts are slated to hit Head Start and other discretionary programs in January 2013.
As Congress prepares to weigh in, the White House has already moved to implement a new bidding process in what some say is a smart move to overhaul the program and tamp down criticism.
In November, the administration moved on a 2007 law passed under Republican President George W. Bush and announced that underperforming Head Start centers must compete for funding.
HHS so far is requiring 132 grantees to compete.
"This has been something that's been on the radar along time ... we've gotten a lot of support across the country," Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the Office of Head Start, said.
MORE DATA THIS YEAR
Meanwhile, both advocates and critics are waiting for new data this year that will look at third-graders and whether Head Start experience improved their performance.
The study follows up on a major HHS study from 2010 that focused on first grade performance. The 10-year study of 5,000 children showed few differences by the end of first grade.
Supporters argued that the study showed more about low-income area schools than Head Start and point to other parts of the findings that show positive impact on families lives. Critics said it proves a failed program with little effect on school readiness.
At House of Mercy's Rosemount Center, a Head Start program near Washington's ethnically diverse Columbia Heights neighborhood, parent Maria Shaw-Gray said her special needs daughter would not have thrived without it.
Ciara, now 5, "was having a hard time walking and her speech wasn't very clear," said Shaw-Gray, a single mother who takes a bus to and from the school. "She was very quiet... now she can do her ABCs and play with other children," she adds as Ciara, a blur of pink, does cartwheels waiting for her mom.
"Before she didn't want to talk or do a lot of moving... now look at her... she's great."
(Reporting By Susan Heavey; Editing by Ross Colvin and Marilyn W. Thompson; Desking by Vicki Allen)