No time to abandon Head Start

Opponents of federal funding for Head Start found new ammunition in the results of the most recent study of the program by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The study released earlier this year followed 5,000 children between 2002 and 2006 and found no difference in academic achievement by the end of the first grade between students who had attended Head Start programs and those who had not. 

Those findings, which echo the findings from previous studies on the erosion of the benefits of Head Start as children enter the elementary grades, sparked a USA Today editorial yesterday urging the government not to “throw more money” at Head Start before “fixing it.” 

President Obama has asked Congress to boost funding for Head Start next year by  $989 million, which would increase the program’s budget to about $8.2 billion. In fact, what the editors miss is that during the George W. Bush administration, Head Start was level funded, and Head Start programs struggled to provide quality care, which may have led to the mixed results shown by the HHS study. 

Either way, critics of Head Start are missing the point. Head Start has been proven to give a significant and lasting advantage to our most vulnerable, low-income children, who would otherwise enter school far behind their most vulnerable peers.  The program offers truly comprehensive early care and education for children, addressing their social and nutritional needs in the classroom as well as academic preparation. 

As today’s opposing op-ed in USA Today by the executive director of the National Head Start Association points out, children who begin with Head Start are less likely to commit crimes, need special education or become pregnant as teenagers. They are more likely to graduate high school, go on to college and have successful careers. 

Instead of abandoning Head Start, we need to ensure that we sustain the gains that children who complete the program achieve through kindergarten and well beyond. That means better alignment in early care and education for children beginning at birth, through Early Head Start and Head Start, through at least the third grade, which is when children in most states are first tested.