As the federally-funded preschool program Head Start continues to face scrutiny by lawmakers, Edward Zigler, the initiative’s founder, warned Friday that proposed changes to the program will threaten its quality.

Zigler discussed the congressional struggle over the program in front of about 40 people Friday at a forum sponsored by the Yale Center in Child Development and Social Policy. The program, which prepares low-income children for school, faces reauthorization this year, and some lawmakers have proposed turning its control over to eight states to combine with local programs. Zigler said this would lead to less money for Head Start and a decline in quality. He also defended the program against attacks from the Bush administration, which has argued that Head Start does not adequately prepare low-income students for school.

“Head Start works to close the gap [between poor children and middle-class children], but there will always be a gap,” Zigler said.

Launched in 1965, the program was initally organized poorly, but gradually improved with added standards and parent and community involvement in local centers, Zigler said. He said the program could be further improved, but that turning it over to the states is problematic because state administrators do not have the infrastructure that the federal government does.

Zigler characterized the recent debate in the House of Representatives as the most abrasive he ever encountered.

“Head Start is not a partisan program,” he said.

But Zigler said he is optimistic now that debate has moved to the Senate. He cited two bills that he said favor the aims of Head Start advocates.

One of the bills, sponsored by Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., seeks to improve Head Start’s academic program with the cooperation of local school districts. The bill, which proposes $3 billion in training for teachers, would require all Head Start instructors to have earned their bachelor’s degrees within eight years.

The other bill Zigler mentioned, proposed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would establish 200 local Head Start “centers of excellence” and follow the progress of their students three years into school.

The Bush administration has claimed that Head Start fails to prepare low-income children well enough so that they are on the same level as middle-class children. The administration has sought to increase the program’s focus on literacy and is requiring more tests that Head Start advocates say measure only a narrow set of skills.

Zigler said he is also worried that the Bush administration and congressional critics are putting too much attention on literacy and not enough on the emotional development of children, which Zigler called “more important than literacy.”

The audience Friday included many parents and educators, such as Bernice Yesner, who has worked in education for over 30 years and said she favors Zigler’s views on Head Start. She said she would like to see many legislators undergo an “indoctrination” that would enable them to understand the hardships of inner-city children and dispel their idealistic expectations of the program.

Another audience member, Pat Doolan, a Head Start coordinator in Connecticut, said literacy must not come at the expense of other components of the program, especially emotional development. She added that she was more hopeful now that the debate is in the Senate that a compromise bill will soon be written.