WASHINGTON — The House approved more money for the popular Head Start program this week after rejecting a GOP-led attempt to allow religious groups participating in the program to hire and fire staffers based on religious grounds.
The bill, passed 365-48, approves $7.4 billion in spending in fiscal 2008 for the 42-year-old program that helps low-income children prepare for school, up from $6.9 billion in the current year.
H.R. 1429 increases enrollment, now about 900,000 children aged 3 to 5, boosts teacher and staff salaries and expands services for homeless, migrant and non-English-speaking children.
"Head Start has served our most vulnerable children and families well for 42 years, and more recently, Early Head Start has done the same for infants and toddlers," said Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., a chief sponsor. "Head Start works, and this bill will make it work even better."
Before the final vote on May 2, Democrats voted down the Republican proposal to change a 1972 Head Start law in order to allow religious groups to take religion into account in hiring. Democrats said that amounted to sanctioning religious discrimination among groups receiving federal money.
Instead, Democrats pushed through an amendment, offered by Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., and several other moderate Democratic freshmen, that confirms the rights of religious groups to participate in Head Start programs on the same basis of other organizations.
If the Senate, now considering a similar bill, and the House come to agreement, it would be the first congressional action on the education, nutrition and health program since the last reauthorization bill expired in 2003. Since then, Congress has voted on money for the program but has been unable to make substantive changes in it.
The White House said it cannot support the bill because of the religion issue and several other provisions, including one to terminate a system of measuring the progress of Head Start children.
It urged the House to change the bill "to ensure that faith-based organizations are not asked to forfeit their religious hiring autonomy as a condition of receiving Head Start grants."
During the last Congress, the GOP-controlled House repealed that provision, but the Head Start bill died when the Senate refused to go along.
"Too often the federal government has ignored or impeded the efforts of faith-based organizations willing to lend a helping hand and providing critical services to the neediest of our communities," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., top Republican on the Education and Labor Committee.
If the provision were appealed, a church group that provides Head Start services could employ child-care workers belonging only to that denomination, rejecting equally qualified workers of other religions.
Republicans argued that the 1964 Civil Rights Act carves out a religious exemption and that President Clinton signed several bills, including the 1996 welfare-reform bill, that included "charitable choice" provisions giving religious groups receiving federal funds some discretion in hiring.
Opponents pointed out that the Civil Rights Act exemption applies to religious groups using their own funds in hiring, not federal funds. They said Clinton, in signing the charitable-choice bills, issued signing statements barring the federal funding of "pervasively sectarian" organizations.
The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, representing 70 religious, civil rights and labor groups, said the repeal would be "the first time that Congress has ever acted to repeal existing, statutory anti-discrimination protections."
"Beliefs about religion should play no role in the hiring of professionals to carry out Head Start duties," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The Head Start bill also expands Head Start eligibility to those earning 130% of the poverty level, or $26,845 annually. The current ceiling is 100% of the poverty level, $20,650.
It terminates the National Reporting System, a program for measuring the progress of Head Start children, to give the National Academy of Science time to develop more accurate standards.
It sets a deadline of 2013 for half of all Head Start classroom teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree in early childhood education and increases spending for Early Head Start programs from 12% to 20% of the total by 2012. New disclosure rules are included to combat waste and abuse in the system.