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Years of steady growth in the Head Start program are likely to come to an end as Republicans promise tougher scrutiny and tighter budgets for the program.

A cornerstone of the '60s war on poverty, Head Start has grown over the years and now provides comprehensive education and health services to 745,000 low-income, preschool children in thousands of classrooms nationwide.Backed by a grass-roots network of parents, teachers and community leaders, Head Start became a part of President Reagan's safety net in the 1980s when other anti-poverty programs were being slashed.

A decade later, when the deficit led to cuts in programs for the poor, Head Start continued to claim a larger slice of the federal budget.

With the Republican takeover of Congress, the days of steady expansions for Head Start may be over. But there have been no promises to dismantle the program from GOP lawmakers who say the Great Society social programs ruin the poor and create a culture of violence, and who propose drastic changes in the way cash and food benefits are provided to the elderly, disabled and single-parent families.

"I don't think Republicans are going to mess with Head Start. It's just a hot button. There's no sense in rattling that cage," says Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Florida Republican who is in line to oversee welfare reform as the chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources.

"Head Start is generally working. We can do a lot better, but it's doing a lot of good for a lot of folks," Shaw said.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who will take over the House Education and Labor Committee in January and oversees Head Start, says the program will get serious scrutiny and could see its $3.5 billion budget temporarily frozen.

"I don't know how you ever get a deficit problem under control unless you're ready to do a hard freeze on everything," Goodling said.

Because of the financial squeeze, Goodling said, Congress will examine Head Start's recent expansion to infants and toddlers, known as Early Head Start, and possible duplication among other federal education and child-care programs for preschoolers.

"There are many good programs out there, and many that have not done too much to help the disadvantaged become more advantaged, and they become someone's employment program," he said.