Head Start not helping
Taxpayers have the right to expect that federal programs for which they foot the bill function at a reasonable level of effectiveness, particularly a program that has operated for 48 years at a cost of more than $180 billion. In that, though, they are often disappointed, particularly when the program is as entrenched and politically sensitive as Head Start — and even when the federal government’s own assessment shows the program isn’t doing its job.
Recently released results of an exhaustive evaluation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for Head Start, confirm the findings of the agency’s 2010 Head Start Impact Study: 3- and 4-year-olds who participated in Head Start were, in almost all areas measured, no better prepared for school than children of similar income and social status who weren’t in the program. The follow-up assessment, which tracked 5,000 3- and 4-year-old students through third grade, found that Head Start had little to no effect on cognitive and social-emotional development, on health and on parenting outcomes of participating children.
For Congress and other policymakers in Washington, the two scientifically rigorous studies serve as a warning that $8 billion a year is largely going to waste.
Will that matter? It should matter at any time in any society truly interested in giving at-risk, low-income children an educational boost, but it should matter doubly now that a debt ceiling increase and deep budget cuts mandated by sequestration loom. The truth is, though, that in the modern welfare state giveaways rarely go away.
Hatched during the War on Poverty, Head Start made sense if it worked. Investing in early education to help poor children with socialization and learning skills would pay off by reducing the number of lawbreakers and welfare cases down the road. Unfortunately, Head Start functions best today as a jobs program.
While the two national assessments do not speak to the effectiveness of particular Head Start programs, they do seem to indicate that the chief benefit of local programs are simply that they are there — as employers, as conduits for public money and as way of socializing children in a classroom environment. They don’t significantly improve performance in math, language, literacy and similar learning skills, according to the studies, and what strides are made often disappear in Head Start children by the end of the first grade.
Early childhood education is important, particularly for children who won’t get the help at home or whose families can’t pay for private preschool, but there are options today that didn’t exist a half-century ago. HHS’s own studies tell us Head Start has run its course. If Washington continues to spend that money, it would be better spent by letting states “make their Head Start dollars portable, following children to a private preschool provider of choice,” as the Heritage Foundation has recommended.
Continuing to pump billions into an ineffective education program cheats taxpayers certainly; but, worse, it cheats the children and parents who learn the hard way that it didn’t work.
From the New Bern (North Carolina) Sun Journal
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