An advocacy group for the National Head Start Program filed a lawsuit June 12 accusing the Bush administration of violating the free-speech rights of local Head Start staff members and their stakeholders by trying to stifle an electronic campaign to save the program in its current format.

At issue is whether local Head Start chapters can use computers at federally funded facilities to engage in any political activity. But the lawsuit is merely the latest salvo in an increasingly heated political battle over the future of Head Start, which promotes educational opportunities for underserved preschoolers.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia by the National Head Start Association (NHSA)—a private, nonprofit group of 1,100 members who receive and administer Head Start funds—comes in response to a May 8 letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), sent to Head Start programs nationwide, warning that their political activities are “governed” and “restricted or limited by federal law.”

According to the letter—handed down by Windy Hill, associate commissioner for the federal Head Start Bureau—the Head Start Act “proscribes the use of programs funds, personnel, or services to support any partisan or nonpartisan political activity,” which would include the use of Head Start staff time and facilities—including computers—to lobby against federal plans for the program’s future.

But NHSA, which recently launched a web site called Save Head Start—an online forum that encourages parents, Head Start employees, and other stakeholders to send electronic correspondence to their governors and Congressional representatives in support of the program—claims the letter was too vague, contained veiled threats of criminal and civil prosecution, and did not offer proper guidance as to “what is and what is not lawful,” according to a response filed May 28 by Sarah Greene, NHSA’s chief executive.

In her response, Greene struck hard at the ambiguous nature of Hill’s letter, demanding the bureau release a statement to clarify that the only limitation placed on free expression under the law applies to the use of federal funds. “A statement to that effect is needed,” she said, “to assure Head Start agencies that they may freely express their views.”

When no response was issued, NHSA filed its lawsuit, which asks the federal court to enjoin any action related to Hill’s letter.

“It is and always has been NHSA’s understanding that expression of views on legislation is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution and that there is no restriction or limitation on a Head Start program or its staff, parents, or board members from expressing views on legislation to members of Congress, to the press, or to others in their communities, provided they do not use federal funds in expressing those views in the process,” Greene said in her letter.

“The long and short of it is they need to make clear what the rules are,” said Edward Waters, the group’s attorney. “Free speech is a fundamental right of every American.”

Officials from the Head Start Bureau did not return calls from an eSchool News reporter before press time.

Looking at the case from the outside, at least one legal expert said he questioned Hill’s interpretation of the law.

According to Hill’s letter, the provisions of the Head Start Act that deal with the use of federal funds to engage in political activities can be tied back to a broader piece of regulatory legislation known as the Hatch Act, which governs the political behavior of federal employees.

Tim Mooney, counsel for the Alliance for Justice—a national association of environmental, civil rights, mental health, women’s, children’s, and consumer advocacy organizations—said that, in theory, the Hatch Act only precludes federally funded organizations from donating staff time, money, and other resources to political activities related to elections and the support of public officials, and does not include lobbying for or against any particular legislation.

“Ms. Hill’s representation that there was a violation of the Hatch Act [appears] way off base,” he said. However, Mooney did say a similar statute governing rules released by the Office of Management and Budget more closely addresses the use of funds for lobbying purposes, though this statute was not mentioned in Hill’s letter.

The lawsuit comes at a critical time for the future of Head Start. NHSA and other program advocates worry that the threat of potential criminal or civil charges will serve to silence the president’s starkest critics just as Congress gears up to vote on the program’s reauthorization, which staffers expect could take place any day now.

Known as the School Readiness Act, the House version of the bill—which follows the goals of President Bush—would allow states to apply for the ability to coordinate Head Start with their own early education programs in exchange for a pledge to maintain or expand funding for early childhood education, including Head Start initiatives.

NHSA contends the legislation paves the way for the federal government to begin phasing out the program. “Whether intended to or not, the proposal would dismantle within five years Head Start’s proven success story and put in place a hodgepodge of inconsistent and untested state government programs,” NHSA said in a report released in April, titled “Dismantling Head Start.”

In response, the Bush administration says its proposed changes will bolster Head Start initiatives by clearing the way for better integration between existing, state-run early childhood programs and locally run Head Start agendas, which previously received their funding directly from the federal government.

“The single most important goal of the Head Start reauthorization should be to improve Head Start and other preschool programs to ensure children are prepared to succeed in school,” said a U.S. Department of Education release addressing the pending reauthorization. “Given the vital role states already play in conducting preschool programs, the president believes there should be a state option to foster comprehensive, high-quality preschool programs.”

In related news, Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Mike Castle, R-Del., and Republican members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on June 12 said they plan to add significant new protections to the bill as it comes before the subcommittee.

According to a press release from Castle’s office, the new protections would limit to eight the number of states allowed to consolidate Head Start programs into their own early education programs; obligate such states to match a substantial portion of the federal commitment with state money in order to qualify; require such states to maintain rigorous standards for all Head Start-related services for children; extend the period of guaranteed funding for Head Start centers in states participating in the pilot project; and make clear that any state contemplating cuts in early childhood education funding need not apply.

“Our bill has always been designed to strengthen Head Start, but we are also listening to those with concerns. I believe the accommodations we are going to make will address those concerns and ultimately strengthen … the bill,” Castle said in a statement.

Links:

National Head Start Association
http://www.nhsa.org

“Save Head Start” web site
http://www.saveheadstart.org

Alliance For Justice
http://www.allianceforjustice.org

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce
http://edworkforce.house.gov

Windy Hill’s letter
http://www.saveheadstart.org/Bush_Administration_letter_to_HS_officials.pdf

NHSA’s response
http://www.saveheadstart.org/NHSA_response_letter_052703.pdf