Used to be, nearly everyone–Democrat or Republican–loved Head Start, the federal preschool program for kids from low-income families. And why not? It’s one of the most successful government programs of the past forty years. Those familiar with Head Start attribute its effectiveness to just how comprehensive it is. A child in Head Start benefits not only from time in the classroom but also from required parental involvement, healthcare screenings and follow-ups (including vaccinations and dental care), nutritious meals and help with special needs.

This makes sense to anyone who’s ever raised children, who tend to get cranky when hungry, spacey when sick and excited when their parents get excited about, say, books. A teacher can read One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish until she’s blue in the face, but if the kid is combating an empty stomach, down with the whooping cough or sorely missing a mother whose energies are directed at simple survival, Dr. Seuss (or any other lessons) will go in one ear and out the other. You have to help the whole kid succeed–especially a kid who is growing up in poverty, who often doesn’t get the experiences a middle-class kid takes for granted. Head Start is one of the few federal programs that aim for equality among the socioeconomic classes. Supporting it was a way for politicians of any stripe to declare their commitment to those they saw as the most deserving poor: children.

That’s all changed. If George W. Bush and like-minded conservatives have their druthers, the program will be the subject of a huge educational experiment, involving state control and a shift to pure academics. This fall, Congress will decide the fate of Head Start.

Bush isn’t giving up the I-love-the-kiddies rhetoric; in fact, he insists, his heart is downright bursting with love and hope for them. “We want Head Start to set higher ambitions for the million children it serves…. There hasn’t been a proper focus on the little children,” he said. “In my line of work, you see a problem, you address it.”

Head Start a problem? That’s how Bush & Co. tell it. According to conservatives, too little emphasis on school readiness and too much bureaucracy are holding Head Start–and the children it serves–back. Could it be true? Are we really doing a disservice to already disadvantaged kids? John Boehner, chair of the House education committee, seems to think so. “Head Start’s graduates beginning kindergarten are more than 25 percentile points below in average skills like recognizing letters, numbers, shapes and colors. Too many children in Head Start are being left behind.”

But if you ask, “Below what? Behind whom?” you’ll find a statistical sleight of hand. While Head Start grads are not scoring as well as their more affluent counterparts, they do score higher than kids who come from the same socioeconomic background but who didn’t participate in Head Start. Simply put, the program works. And if kids from low-income families aren’t scoring as high as kids in the suburban middle class, it’s because teachers and other services can only do so much. Of course, Head Start’s critics fail to acknowledge that these kids face problems created, in part, by conservative policies that make life harder for the poor. It’s one thing to talk about reaching out to homeless children, as House conservatives do in their Head Start bill; it’s something else to support policies that would enable the kids’ parents to set up a home.

Indeed, Bush conservatives claim that most states already offer plenty of social services for the poor–and that Head Start is only duplicating them. A Head Start bill supported by the White House would essentially do away with comprehensive services by eliminating the federal role in administering the program. Through a block grant, it would give eight states control of running early childhood programs. (Other states would appear to have to meet a list of tough requirements to get the same privilege–except that another provision in the bill says that if the Secretary of Health and Human Services doesn’t get to a state’s application quickly enough, the state is automatically approved.) Moreover, the language about what range of services the states need to provide is vague.

The President insists that we must have faith in the states. “States understand that high quality and accountability are just as important in the preschool years as they are in grades K through 12,” he says. But that’s the problem. States tend to whittle away at even K-12 budgets when the going gets tough. Not a good sign for the 3-year-old who needs a Head Start staffer to, for example, help her parents past a language barrier so the dentist knows how long her tooth has been hurting.

What’s left after Head Start’s comprehensive services fall away? School readiness. Bush thinks that’s enough. He told a crowd at a Maryland Head Start center, “I laid out a plan. Every Head Start center must prepare children to succeed by teaching the basics of learning and literacy. That’s the cornerstone of the plan.” Other aspects of the plan suffer from the same sort of workmanship: grand talk, followed by unfunded mandates (required bachelor’s degrees for teachers, for example, and testing of kids not long out of diapers) and, ultimately, reduced services. The real issue here is that despite all the talk about accountability, Bush conservatives don’t want the federal government to be accountable for anything, especially anything related to poverty.

The truth is, there’s nothing much wrong with Head Start except that it reaches only 60 percent of kids eligible for it. Like all programs, it probably could use some tinkering to be more effective. But dismantling it is not the answer. Representative Alcee Hastings said of the assault on the program, “This is shameful and, frankly, sinister…. First the child tax credit, now this. What is next? Maybe there is a Republican bill out there that outlaws kickball or stickball.” Nah. Compassionate conservatism would just talk the games up and then have the states tell the poorest kids, “Sorry, you can’t play.”