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AS THE BUSH administration's embattled plans for Head Start reform move to the Senate, this much remains largely undisputed: Hiring better-trained teachers and encouraging staff to pursue higher degrees should benefit the program's more than 900,000 preschool children.

That's the way to ensure that the building blocks of literacy and math are taught using up-to-date techniques known to help children deprived of the basics at home.

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The bill before federal lawmakers calls for 50 percent of Head Start teachers to have bachelor's degrees by 2008. More than half now have associate's degrees, as required when Congress last renewed the Head Start law in 1998.

Building a staff with credentials comparable to those demanded by public school systems won't be cheap - so Republican lawmakers' agreement last week to limit Head Start's budget increases through 2008 risks thwarting the President Bush's stated intention of raising academic standards.

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Increasing teacher quality will cost at least $2 billion over the next five years, estimates the nonprofit Trust for Early Education, which supports the plan to strengthen Head Start's academic focus. The estimate does not include tuition or hiring substitutes for teachers who go back to school - just salaries.

But the House plan falls far short of that. It would add only $202 million - about 3 percent - to Head Start's appropriation next year, nudging the budget from $6.7 billion to $6.9 billion. That would be Head Start's smallest increase since 1995, according to federal Administration for Children and Families data. Another half-billion more added by 2008, to make $7.4 billion, wouldn't cover salary upgrades plus inflationary costs, critics warn.

Early-childhood education research suggests that high-quality instruction before age 5 can counter many of the learning deficits poor children bring to school. That demands well-trained teachers with the heart to work with poor children.

But Head Start's best, newly armed with advanced diplomas, surely will be lured away by better-paying school systems if the federal program isn't committed to retaining them - local Head Start leaders say that already happens now.

The average salary of a Head Start teacher nationally is $22,000. In Maryland, with a bachelor's degree, the average is $31,642 - but on the Eastern Shore it's well below average and in Montgomery County it's well above. A Maryland public school teacher with generally the same training on average earns $37,000.

History lesson: After Congress sent the Head Start teachers to community college in 1998, it backed up its mandate over four years with more than $2 billion dollars in budget increases, which paid for salary upgrades and program expansions.

Even as debate continues over the possibility of future state control of Head Start, federal lawmakers must make a financial commitment that supports their demand today for further professionalization of the staff.

Without adequate funding, a proposal full of good ideas is ultimately shortsighted.


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