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Reform Jewish Movement Urges House Members to Oppose Head Start Overhaul

Contact:Alexis Rice or Randi Levine 202-387-2800

WASHINGTON, June 23, 2003 - In a letter today to the House of Representatives, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), urged Representatives to oppose the School Readiness Act of 2003 (H.R. 2210), noting, "To deny children living in poverty the most qualified teacher in the name of religion is nothing short of an attack on Head Start's core mission-preparing children to succeed in school."

The complete letter follows:

Dear Representatives:

On behalf of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), whose membership includes over 1800 Reform rabbis, I strongly urge you to oppose the School Readiness Act of 2003 (H.R. 2210). This bill would repeal longstanding civil rights protections by allowing faith-based Head Start centers to discriminate on the basis of religion in whom they hire. It would also divert Head Start funding to states without mandating the comprehensive services that have benefited millions of children.

The blanket authorization of religious discrimination in hiring that H.R. 2210 allows is unconscionable. We expect government-funded programs to hire the people who are most qualified, not those whose religious beliefs best match those of an employer. This is especially problematic in relation to Head Start. One's faith does not determine how one reads a book to preschoolers or sings the alphabet song. To deny children living in poverty the most qualified teacher in the name of religion is nothing short of an attack on Head Start's core mission-preparing children to succeed in school.

Since its founding, Head Start has prided itself on the strength of its family involvement component. Head Start has successfully trained many of its low-income parents to work at Head Start centers-helping parents rise out of poverty. In fact, the Family and Child Experiences Survey, prepared in January 2002 for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that over 40 percent of Head Start staff members had children in their households who were current or former Head Start participants. On the day this bill becomes law, faith-based Head Start programs could fire such staff members because of their religious beliefs. A Head Start center could refuse to consider a qualified parent for a job because of the way the parent chooses to worship. Experience teaches us that a broad exemption for religious organizations would permit religious groups to use government money to discriminate based on race, sexual orientation, and marital status.

Unfortunately, religious discrimination in hiring is only one of the many ways that H.R. 2210 would harm our nation's most vulnerable children. The provision of comprehensive services, such as health care and nutrition programs, has long been a hallmark of Head Start. Through a pilot program, H.R. 2210 would authorize eight states to take over management of the program without requiring that the state programs meet Head Start's strict performance standards, which guarantee these services to children and families. In addition, the $202 million authorized by this bill for Fiscal Year 2004 is insufficient to attract and retain teachers in light of the new teacher educational requirements. Without salaries comparable to those of elementary school teachers, qualified teachers will have no incentive to work for Head Start.

The Talmud tells a story of a teacher whose prayer for rain was answered promptly. Asked to tell of his special merit, he replied: "I teach children of the poor as well as of the rich; I accept no fee from any who cannot afford it; and I have a fishpond to delight the children and to encourage them to do their lessons." Since 1965, through its comprehensive services and high quality standards, Head Start has striven to give millions of children an equal opportunity to succeed in school, nurturing their love of learning and delight in life. I urge you to protect such opportunity for our nation's teachers, parents, and children by opposing H.R. 2210.

Respectfully,

Rabbi David Saperstein
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) , whose over 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes over 1800 Reform rabbis .



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