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President Bush's veto stalls Indian Head Start enhancements

WASHINGTON - The Senate and House of Representatives have passed, and watchful organizations expect President Bush to sign, a reauthorization of the Head Start Act that includes long-sought upgrades of the Indian Head Start program. Among those upgrades are special expansion funds, a Head Start partnership grant program for tribal colleges and universities with language-specific and culturally appropriate instruction, funding flexibility provisions that would permit Indian Head Start programs to move funds as needed between pre-school Head Start (serving 3- to 5-year-olds) and Early Head Start (infancy to age 3), and authorizations for the parent Department of Health and Human Services to revise performance standards and consult Alaska Natives with a view toward accommodating the timely provision of health services to children in rural areas.

But the most stubborn issue about the bill - how to fund Indian Head Start - remains a matter of suspense as Congress and Bush descend into impasse over the fiscal year 2008 budget. Gregory Smith, a lobbyist with Johnston and Associates in Washington, representing the National Indian Head Start Directors Association, explained that the bill contains a new funding formula that represents a potential 27 percent increase from the current funding of the program, phased in over several years.

Under the formula, Smith said, Indian Head Start's funding would be increased by a maximum of $10 million per year, depending on appropriations for the overall Head Start program, until the full $50 million annual increase is in place.

In the fiscal year 2008 Labor HHS (short for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education) appropriations bill, which Bush vetoed, Indian Head Start was slated to receive $7.5 million in special expansion funds, Smith said. ''This is not a one-time increase, but an addition to the base funding for Indian Head Start that would remain in place until the next Head Start reauthorization in five to 10 years.''

But he added that the increase only goes into effect if there is an increase in overall Head Start funding that is equal to at least half the inflation rate.

The level funding that Bush has proposed for Head Start would cancel the special expansion funds for Indian Head Start, including $7.5 million for fiscal year 2008. His budget proposal for Head Start, rejected by Congress, is back in play again following his veto of Labor HHS appropriations, and Smith said special expansion funds for Indian Head Start now depend on a budget agreement between Congress and the president.

''Our hope is to secure the increase for FY '08 that Congress provided in the Labor HHS appropriations bill, then get another increase next year for FY 2009 on top of the earlier increase, and keep doing that until we reach the $50 million per year maximum.''

Smith said a constellation of tribes and tribal organizations and Head Start groups (including migrant and seasonal worker Head Starts) rallied in support of increased funding for Indian Head Start. ''And Congress responded with a great reauthorization bill and with the dollars we needed in the appropriations bill.

''It is everyone's hope that these gains will be retained in the final Head Start budget.''