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English-only Head Start amendment defeated

WASHINGTON - An attempt to outlaw Native languages in Indian Head Start programs by funding only English instruction failed in the Rules Committee of the House of Representatives late May 1. Committee decisions meant the amendment, offered by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, could not be considered for attachment to the Improving Head Start Act of 2007 as considered by the full House May 2.

Late that evening, all signs indicated Republicans would abandon an attempt to ''recommit'' the amendment to the committee for another try, said Greg Smith of Johnston & Associates, a leading lobbyist on Native-specific legislation. That would make it a ''double killed'' amendment in Capitol Hill jargon, meaning it had been spanked so soundly that English-only advocates would be less apt to offer it on other bills. Smith emphasized that he doesn't hold the amendment against Republicans, some of whom voted with Democrats against the amendment, but said he ''would be against anyone who brought forward such abominable legislation.''

Indian country responded to the amendment, with its prohibition on funding for Native languages in Head Start programs, as if it were an all-out assault on their cultural identity, Smith said. National Indian Head Start, the National Indian Education Association, the National Alliance to Save Native Languages and the National Congress of American Indians all weighed in forcefully against the amendment within two hours of its promulgation.

''Head Start programs provide one of the few opportunities for Indian communities to preserve Native languages, cultures and traditions,'' wrote NCAI President Joe Garcia to Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Howard ''Buck'' McKeon, R-Calif., of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

''Congressman King's amendment would be incredibly detrimental to the growth and development of Native children. It is because of this that we strongly urge you to oppose this amendment that would undermine Indian Country's efforts to preserve our many languages and cultures.''

Ryan Wilson, president of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, asked the same audience to promptly reject ''this odious amendment.'' That is what happened.

Smith speculated that even the amendment's sponsor probably didn't expect it to pass. The impetus for it came out of the English-only school of thought. Hispanic-language instruction in Head Start was arguably the main target of the amendment, ''and we got swept up in its scope.'' King may have a constituency in Iowa that appreciates the amendment, Smith added.

King's office could not be reached for comment by press time.