Faith-Based Hiring Spat Threatens Head Start

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As Congress considers the reauthorization of the 40-year-old Head Start program for young children, a key concern is whether local programs should be able to hire employees based on their religious background. Democrats are threatening to derail the legislation over the issue.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The Head Start program for disadvantaged children turned 40 this year, and it's up for renewal in Congress. Of course, funding is a key issue, but there are also lingering questions about how well the program really prepares poor kids for kindergarten. And as NPR's Rachel Jones reports, a battle is shaping up also over whether to let church-based Head Start programs hire employees based on their religion.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

Forty-one preschoolers from Matthews Memorial Baptist Church have spent all morning tearing around Washington, DC's National Zoo. But the three-, four- and five-year-olds in bright fuchsia T-shirts are out of steam as they climb off the bus and head for the church's educational wing to the day-care center.

Ms. CAROLINE ELLERBEE(ph) (Teacher): All my divas, let's go. Come on, divas.

JONES: After a snack, teacher Caroline Ellerbee gets them revved up again.

Ms. ELLERBEE: Where did we go today first of all?

Group of Children: (In unison) Zoo!

Ms. ELLERBEE: To the zoo. Now who can tell me, what did you see at the zoo?

Unidentified Child #1: We saw...

Group of Children: (In unison) ...panda bears.

Ms. ELLERBEE: And what's that panda bear do?

Unidentified Child #2: Eat and...

Unidentified Child #1: Talk. Eating and talking.

JONES: Ellerbee says when she started working at Matthews Memorial 25 years ago, she only intended to stay for a few years. But she says she found her calling by working here, even though her religious background is different.

Ms. ELLERBEE: Because actually I was baptized as a Methodist. So here I am working in a Baptist church. So why discriminate if it should be open to all?

JONES: That's Ellerbee's opinion about a plan on Capitol Hill that might allow some church-based Head Start programs to refuse to hire people based on their religious beliefs. House Republicans, led by Ohio Representative Jim Boehner, have said they will introduce language about faith-based hiring into the program's reauthorization bill. The Bush administration supports the plan. Jim Towey directs the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Mr. JIM TOWEY (Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives): Most Americans don't have a problem with faith-based organizations providing federally funded services and being able to maintain their identity.

JONES: Towey says the Head Start charitable choice provision mirrors what President Bill Clinton had in mind when he signed welfare reform legislation. He says Clinton and now President Bush realized that religious leaders would only agree to help government tackle social problems if they could maintain their religious identity and principles. Towey says that's all charitable choice does, and it's not a threat to Head Start.

Mr. TOWEY: Let's be clear about one thing. There is no requirement that a group under a charitable choice program has to hire according to their religious beliefs. It's an option. It preserves the principle that a faith-based organization should have hiring autonomy.

JONES: Towey says he hopes Democrats on Capitol Hill won't prevent churches from participating in Head Start by voting against the provision. But Representative George Miller of California says that's not what Democrats are trying to do.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): We would not have been able to have the expansion of Head Start, the utilization of Head Start, without the involvement of many religious organizations, and that's not a problem.

JONES: Miller says Republicans are distorting the intent of charitable choice.

Rep. MILLER: What they're disguising is that they're trying to give them the affirmative right to discriminate and keep people from being employed and participating in those programs because of their religion, and that's what's unacceptable; that's the bridge too far.

JONES: Through the years, one of the most successful components of Head Start has been its parent participation. Many parents have risen up the ranks to help run their local programs. Miller says charitable choice could hamper that involvement and change the very nature of Head Start as a program that helps the whole family.

Despite the charitable choice debate, lawmakers predict Head Start will be reauthorized this year. Advocates hope that will free the program to focus on more important issues like the question of why only about half the poor children who are eligible for Head Start get to participate. Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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