In a speech given Friday afternoon at the Becton Center, Edward Zigler of the Bush Center for Child Development and Social Policy at Yale provided his audience with what he called “47 minutes of horror and three minutes of light,” forecasting a troubled future for the national Head Start program while urging its supporters and teachers not to give up.

Zigler was a member of the federally sanctioned planning committee that founded Head Start in 1964 and later served as director of Head Start under President Nixon. Friday he spoke on two legislative issues that he said greatly threaten Head Start’s mission to serve underprivileged preschool-aged children. The proposed devolution of federal Head Start funding and administration from its current centralized model onto individual states and the creation of the National Reporting System — a standardized test of the cognitive and linguistic abilities of Head Start students — could imperil its mission, he said.

Zigler said while he does not care who administers Head Start in the end, he feels that giving Head Start funds directly to state governments would be a great risk to the program’s students unless governors would agree to impose quality control standards as strict as those of the current Head Start Bureau.

“You have to have a lot of trust to hand that money to 50 governors,” Zigler said. “That’s a great risk to poor kids, and Head Start now serves 900,000 kids a year.”

President Bush proposed shifting funding for Head Start to the states in July 2003, and the issue became a key feature of last year’s fiercely partisan House debates on Head Start reauthorization. The measure was approved for eight trial states — including Connecticut — in a vote that pitted Republican supporters against every Democrat in the House, with several Republicans dissenting. Zigler said he was disappointed by the outcome of the vote.

“You can get a lot of scars in this business if you stick at it, and this was certainly one of them,” he said.

Zigler also argued against the National Reporting System, or NRS, a test he said was flawed due to its focus on analytical skills. The problem with such a test, Zigler said, is that teachers who fear losing their jobs may begin teaching to the test rather than to the student. This means they will pay less attention to the emotional and mental health of the child.

The test, he warned, could change Head Start from a holistic program to a purely academic one, thus becoming a detriment to its students.

In his closing remarks, Zigler encouraged Head Start supporters to not give up hope.

“You have good years and bad years. We had eight wonderful years under Clinton and four, well, four years under Bush. You’ve just got to keep working hard to get what you want,” Zigler said. “Stay here for the long haul.”

Linda Michaels, director of the West Haven Head Start program, said she strongly agreed with Zigler’s assessment of the challenges Head Start faces today. She also stressed the importance of the upcoming election.

“If we lose the Senate, Head Start might disappear,” Michaels said.

For Mary Ellen Myers, a teacher for West Haven’s Head Start program, the issue of testing hits closer to home.

“Having to give a standardized test to a four-year-old child is a horrible experience,” she said. “I’m mandated to do it, but it’s a horrible experience.”