Head Start: Opportunities for a New Generation


By Ashlyn Nuckols.

This January the federal government-sponsored early childhood education program, Head Start, celebrated its fifty-year milestone. The program was one of the policy initiatives championed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his War on Poverty and was introduced with the stated goal of providing “the inheritors of poverty’s curse” an opportunity for academic success. The program has since proven an important tool for combating inequality of opportunity. But it has not always been smooth sailing, and success has come only after long periods of trial and error. Today, the program is still in need of some large-scale changes, and there has never been a better time to talk about reform.

Despite its optimistic beginnings, Head Start has seen a number of bumps in the road and encountered a great deal of opposition during its years of serving disadvantaged youth. After a promising eight-week demonstration program serving more than half a million children, the initiative was quickly expanded to a full-year service with programming in al fifty states and Washington DC. The early promise faded somewhat after the rapid expansion due to the lack of a consistent method for evaluating the local Head Start groups, leading to inefficiencies and poor service in certain districts. This difficulty was exacerbated early on by the strained relationship between Head Start and local school districts, which often clashed over opposing political missions. While critics have used these challenges as justification for cuts in funding, the program has demonstrated extraordinary resilience and adaptability.  Today, Head Start maintains an amiable partnership with most local schools and has served over thirty-one million children, many of whom experienced significant academic gains upon entering the public school system.

Regardless, the program still faces a number of challenges. A House Budget Committee report that came out last March found that while students enrolled in the program made solid initial gains, the effect rarely persisted beyond the third grade. Advocates of the program contest this result, citing a second study which found that participants were better off, both academically and socially, late into their twenties. Still, the data collected in the first study does indicate a concerning trend. While the stated goal of the program is to “promotes school readiness of children under 5,” critics point out that school readiness is of limited value if the child is not able to be successful in the long run.

However, it is important to note that this trend has not persisted in all cases; many school districts have seen improvements lasting far longer than the national average. The solution to the problems Head Start is facing is certainly not to give up on the project, but neither is it to simply hope that performance improves on its own. After fifty years, these issues can no longer be attributed to early road bumps. Congress needs to make adopting the kind of strategies that lead to long-term success a priority, even if this means restructuring the current model for the program’s implementation. Right now early education is enjoying more national support than ever, making this the perfect time to talk about reform.  

In the past, any discussion of reforming Head Start has taken the form of those in favor doing their best to preserve funding, while those opposed try to get the program cut altogether. However, politicians are not nearly as divided on this issue they once were. Allocating public funds for universal pre-kindergarten was one of the major proposals made by Bill de Blasio in his recent campaign for mayor of New York City. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder—a Republican—also called for significant expansion of early childhood education programs. At the Federal level,, and Congress approved a $6.41 billion dollar budget for Head Start in fiscal year 2014, a number significantly higher than the 2013 budget. Early education clearly isn’t going anywhere. Defendants of Head Start no longer need to avoid admitting to failures that need addressing, and critics need to accept that it is here to stay and help work to make it as effective as possible.

One measure that has already been proposed is the Head Start Improvement Act, a bill that was introduced in the Senate last March by Republican Senator Mike Lee. The bill lays out a plan to restructure the formula for allocating funds to Head Start agencies.  While past improvement bills have often attempted to cut the programs funding, Senator Lee’s bill instead seeks to incentivize high performance and ensure that the funds already allocated for the program are put to use.  Among other measures, the bill would require that state-level grantees receiving funds establish rules and standards for the entities awarded sub-grants, ensuring a level of local oversight that Federal administrators have failed to provide. It would also redistribute funds in order to ensure maximum impact by granting in proportion to the number of families with young children living below the poverty line.

While some of Head Start’s staunch supporters are likely to be skeptical of reform that places more power at the local level, it is important for everyone to recognize that the program is in need of improvement—and that a lack of local oversight has always been one of its greatest shortcomings. It is essential that politicians put aside partisan conflict and recognize that this program is too important to be allowed to fail. It has made a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of children, but it has also let far too many of them down. This issue is one that must be addressed now, not only because the political climate is right because of rising income inequality. We can’t afford to let programs intended to combat that trend fall by the wayside. Head Start is doing a great job; but it can, and it must, do better.  

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