Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Getting Head Smart about Head Start

Tony Perkins
Family Research Council

Like so many government programs, Head Start means well--but has never performed well. And while Democrats have fought tooth and nail to save the initiative, which was meant to give pre-schoolers a jump on education, even the government recognizes Head Start for what it is: a 48-year, $180 billion failure.

Head Start got its own start in 1965 as an outgrowth of the war on poverty. The goal was to try to give low-income families, who are often headed by single moms, some help preparing their toddlers for kindergarten. But instead of boosting childhood development, the program is ballooning the federal debt! And according to a new Health and Human Services (HHS) survey, that might be all the program is good for. The study (which was finished in October but conveniently released after the election) found that Head Start "had little to no impact on cognitive, social-emotional, health or parenting practices of participants." And, by some measures, "access to Head Start had harmful effects on children."

How's that for irony? For years, liberals have criticized Head Start opponents as unfeeling elitists, when in fact, the most compassionate solution for families may be shutting down the program altogether! It turns out that federally-funded day care--even in the guise of "early childhood education"--is not typically a solution that's beneficial to children or worthwhile for taxpayers. Researchers compared 5,000 Head Start alums with their peers and were shocked to see that the program failed to make a difference (except perhaps negatively) on the kids who were enrolled in the program.

"Alarmingly, access to Head Start for [a three-year-old group] actually had a harmful effect on the teacher-assessed math ability of these children once they entered kindergarten. Teachers reported that non-participating children were more prepared in math skills than those children who participated in Head Start." Unfortunately, this isn't the first time Head Start has underperformed. The Wall Street Journal points out that federal studies in 1969, 1985, and 2005 all decried the fleeting benefits of Head Start.

In the four-year-old group, Heritage Foundation notes, "access to Head Start failed to have an effect for 69 out of 71 outcomes!" And this kind of futility doesn't come cheap. In the past 50 years, more than 20 million children have been enrolled in the program at a total cost of $180 billion. That's almost $9,000 per pre-schooler--which is almost a year's worth of in-state tuition at the University of Maryland! It's bad enough that the government is spending this much money, but it's even more inexcusable if the program isn't working--or worse, is having a negative effect! The government was supposed to help families in poverty, not put the country in debt. Yet that's exactly what Congress was proposing when the Senate used the Hurricane Sandy relief bill to tack on another $100 million for Head Start.

In the end, the people who need relief are U.S. taxpayers, who are tired of working long hours so that the government can waste more of their hard-earned money. There are other ways to help low-income children than spending for spending's sake. If President Obama truly believes that education policy should be driven by "what works," then it's time to look beyond Head Start to real solutions--like parental choice.