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Reform Jewish Movement Condemns House Passage of Head Start Overhaul

Contact: Barbara Weinstein or Rachel Wainer 202-387-2800

WASHINGTON, July 24, 2003 - In response to the narrow House passage of the School Readiness Act of 2003 (H.R. 2210), the Head Start reauthorization bill, Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

Today, the House of Representatives passed a bill that jeopardizes the success of a program that has improved the lives of more than 20 million vulnerable preschoolers. We are dismayed at the narrow passage of the so-called School Readiness Act (H.R. 2210), a bill that would give faith-based Head Start centers blanket authorization to discriminate in whom they hire on the basis of religion. While Congress claims a commitment to leaving no child behind, this bill’s dilution of Head Start’s standards and its failure to provide sufficient funding would, in fact, leave millions of children behind even before their first day of kindergarten.

While the constitutionality of allowing government-funded faith-based programs to hire employees based on religion is complex, such a policy of government-funded discrimination is deeply problematic. H.R. 2210 threatens the very notion of equal opportunity that Head Start has sought to provide for children. It is a sad day in America when a qualified teacher willing to serve our nation's most impoverished preschoolers for little pay is turned away, or even fired, from Head Start merely because of the way she worships. A faith-based organization may choose to run a Head Start center because of the organization’s religious mission but once it accepts government dollars, it assumes the mission of Head Start--to prepare children to succeed in school.

Unfortunately, government-funded employment discrimination is only one of the many ways that H.R. 2210 would harm our nation’s children. In a nation as wealthy as ours, it is inexcusable that Congress would provide only enough funding for three out of every five eligible preschoolers to participate in 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 performance standards, which guarantee comprehensive services to children and families. These standards are part of what have made Head Start such a success. We are pleased that H.R. 2210 includes new educational requirements for Head Start teachers. However, without a major investment of funding, Head Start will not be able to attract and retain certified teachers who could earn significantly higher salaries at elementary schools. As the Talmud says, “If you see cities uprooted, know that it came about because they did not maintain teachers’ salaries.”

As the Senate considers its Head Start reauthorization, we hope it will work in a bipartisan manner to put children ahead of politics, to provide funding so that every eligible child can participate, to require the federal standards that have made Head Start a success, and to protect the civil rights of all Americans.

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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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